ICYMI: Wind River (2017)
If you’re lucky, a movie will grab you right from the opening moments. That was certainly my experience with 2017’s Wind River. We see a young woman at night, running in the snow. We do not see her being chased, but she is obviously running from something. We notice her face is slightly bloody and she is barefoot. She is determination defined. The camera cuts to a wide shot of a dark night with full moon shining down. She will be dead soon. We will meet Natalie (Kelsey Asbille) briefly in a heartbreaking flashback but from the get-go we in the audience are enthralled to get to the bottom of this mystery. Additionally, the opening wide shot is truly picturesque. I am lucky I got to see this gem on the big screen.
Wind River marks the directorial debut of noted screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. Best known for his work on high-octane thrillers like Sicario and his Oscar-nominated handiwork on the modern-day crime classic Hell or High Water, Sheridan easily segues to confidant filmmaker in his rookie effort behind the camera. The film stars Jeremy Renner as a US Fish and Wildlife agent brought in to help the local Tribal Police Chief, played by Graham Greene, investigate the death from the opening scene. They are aided by a seemingly green FBI agent, played by Elizabeth Olsen. She is brought in as a matter of procedure since the death occurred on an Indian Reservation.
Why isn’t it classified as a murder? Because while the local medical examiner does find evidence of rape, the young woman had no other signs of violence and seemed to just freeze to death. She was obviously running in fear from something, or someone, but this bureaucratic classification is just the first sign of the indifference plaguing Native Americans in the film and in our society. This new mystery parallels the unsolved death of Renner’s own teenage daughter from a few years earlier.
While the movie never follows that route of redemption, Renner’s past allows him to bond with the victim’s father (played achingly by Gil Birmingham). Here we learn that Natalie had a new boyfriend. Additionally, we are introduced to Natalie’s brother, whose involvement in drugs may have played a role. Renner, Olsen and Graham knock on their share of unfriendly doors, which eventually leads to a heart stopping showdown. Taylor Sheridan shows himself to be just as skilled at staging such scenes, after previously just writing them. Wind River is a tense and absorbing thriller, perfectly paced and skillfully acted.
Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen may seem to be in an alternate Marvel Universe but leave their respective Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch personas behind to provide first rate work. Renner occupies this world of despair and violence comfortably as a man who has suffered the loss of a child and marriage but still sees a purpose in his work. Olsen is effective as a woman trying to survive in a man’s world and proves to be a lot tougher than she looks. Her character gets to control her own destiny unlike the misguided manipulations of Emily Blunt from the Sheridan world of Sicario. Graham Greene adds another memorable character to his impressive three-decade resume (Dances With Wolves, Die Hard With a Vengeance, Transamerica) that shows his knack for characters of good humor and good insight.
But the best work in the film may belong to an actor with a considerably less amount of screen time: Gil Birmingham. Best known for his appearance in the Twilight film series as well as Sheridan’s current endeavor, Paramount TV’s Yellowstone, Birmingham provides an Oscar-caliber performance in a matter of three scenes. As the grieving father of the victim, he reverberates pain, loss and resolve with subtlety and quiet power. The final scene between him and Renner may be the heart of the film showing two men who have lost equally and know that their only choice is to mask their hurt and keep moving forward.
Wind River closes with title cards that relay the cold facts that statistics of missing Native American women are not kept. It’s the final gut punch in a film full of harsh truths and shocking violence. The film offers no answers but I for one found the poetic justice delivered upon the film’s chief villain to be both fitting and numbing. Funny how a film can thrill you with action and a taste of revenge only to sober you up to the inevitable shallowness of vengeance. That’s Wind River.