Review: Wind River
COVID-19 has left Hollywood in a state of suspended animation, as various television film and television productions have come to a sudden halt, and, notwithstanding the latest release of a limited number of films (I'm looking at you, Chistopher Nolan), the world is experiencing a rare lack of new content. Consequently, I've been revisiting older films: some that I've never seen, and others that I've watched time and time again. In particular, and perhaps due to the current travel ban, I've been most interested in the films that emphasise setting, in the hope that by staring at my screen for long enough I might be transported elsewhere.
When it comes to setting, there are few better than screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, for whom the environment in which a film is set is paramount; a protagonist (and antagonist) in itself. Wind River, his 2017 directorial debut, is no exception. It’s different from Sheridan’s previous screenplays: where Hell or High Water is set in the dry plains of Texas, and Sicario along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, here he heads to a Native American Reservation in snowy Wyoming. But the mountainous terrains of the film’s neo-Western setting connote many of the same themes: there are morally ambiguous heroes, tensions between law-enforcers and criminals, and a sense of ‘us versus them’ that draws upon and challenges conventional notions of American Frontierism.
The film begins with the body of a Native American teenager, Natalie, who ran six miles in the snow to escape her assailant before her lungs filled with blood and she froze to death. She is discovered, on accident, by Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), an agent of the Fish and Wildlife Service and an expert tracker. The fact that it is a white man—connected to the community only through his Native American ex-wife and their deceased daughter—who finds the body is symbolic of the film’s broader thematic concerns. White objectification is vital to the narrative, and without engaging in a clichéd view of Native American life, Sheridan suggests that it is indeed a film about the land: about the relationships on the land, ownership of that land, about white intruders, and white spectatorship. Tied to that land, then, is an inextricable sense of loss – the loss that only parents can understand, that fathers grapple with, a loss that plagues the Native American community. Like many of Sheridan’s previous screenplays, he allows cinematography to express emotions where words fail, through panning shots of ferocious snowstorms and the white sleet that covers the ground, a blank canvas for monsters to roam. Revenge is important, sure, as is the quest for the truth; but these things remain inferior to the reality that the pain exists regardless. Cory and Natalie’s father, Gil, are forced to reconcile with this fact, and as they sit side by side in the snow at the film’s end, they choose to feel their pain, because it’s inescapable, anyway.
At times, Sheridan’s dialogue borders on unnecessarily overt in a landscape so unrelenting that it more or less requires no explanation to aid its already powerful, almost vocal, visuals. FBI agent Jane Banner (Elisabeth Olsen) is also problematic; too many of her scenes are predicated on reacting to Renner’s agency, and the tactless way in which she handles an interview with Natalie’s parents does undermine some of the film’s established nuance. The tension in the film exists in the explosive journey towards a tumultuous end, peppered with random acts of violence that are remarkable to behold, even in a town that is no stranger to such outbursts. What is perhaps most alarming, what lingers long after viewing, is the random nature of this violence, which is, at its most understandable, born from disastrous social conditions following centuries of white oppression, and, at its most disturbing, from a desperate desire for something, anything, other than open space and silence. It comes back to the land, a land that is both the source and receptor of pain, where the monsters’ evils are casual and improvised; visible at one moment and obscured by a fresh layer of snow the next.