'Wind River' Haunts with a Chill

Wind River
(USA, 110 min.)
Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Kelsey Asbille, Gil Birmingham
Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner star in Wind River
VVS Films
The whispers of frigid air provide a winter chill in Wind River. Set in the snowy mountains of Wyoming at the Wind River Reservation, Wind River could easily take place in the Canadian North up by Highway 16 (aka Highway of Tears) with its unsettling story of a young Indigenous woman who is raped and murdered in an act of violence that seems all too common. She runs through the snowy field as the film begins, coughing blood as her lungs freeze until her frostbitten bare feet can’t carry her any further and she collapses. As she runs, a poem quietly murmurs in voiceover: it’s the sound of a ghost floating through a valley in which death always hangs in the air. This film chills you to the bone with its unnerving and all too real drama.

The girl, Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), comes from an isolated community that sees little support and even fewer allies, save for the local hunter from the fish and game department, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). Cory discovers Natalie’s body while hunting the tracks of some cougars killing livestock on the reserve, and he soon finds an ally in rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who is so fresh out of the academy that she doesn’t even have boots or mitts to endure the snow. Jane’s a smart one, though, and she quickly realises that she and the community are greatly outmatched when it comes to finding the killer(s). She recruits Cory to be her tracker, along with the help of Ben (a scene-stealing Graham Greene), the sheriff of the reservation police, and she relies on a mix of skills learned by the books and in the fields.

The search for the guilty parties brings Jane uncomfortably close to the hardships residents on the reserve experience every day. Pain, death, and suffering are everywhere since virtually everyone she encounters—including Cory—has lost a loved one to violence. Wind River brings audiences into the homes of these residents who’ve been exploited and discarded. The film doesn’t mince ways when it comes to showing the poverty, addiction, mental health issues, and violence that exist on the reserve.

While Jane is new to this isolated community, she looks at Natalie’s plight and the loss of her family with an eye far more compassionate that many of the outsiders in her stead might bring to the reserve. She’s quick to jump into Clarice Starling mode to get shit done and find justice, and Olsen quickly steals the film away from Renner with her performance of fiery grit and strength. Olsen, like Jodie Foster, knows how to use her petite figure to challenge the expectations that one might bring to a woman in such a position of authority and power. And encounter gender bias and sexism, Jane certainly does. When Jane is at her jitteriest, Wind River chills the most because this young woman retraces the footsteps of a ghost that could easily be her own lost soul had she been born into a different life.

Of the men in the film, Wind River finds unstated power in Gil Birmingham’s performance as a grieving father. The men of Wind River, on the other hand, are mostly a rough bunch: drug users, hunters, and rowdy guys holed up in the remote area with nothing to do. The film affords each character her or his own complexity though, and Wind River shows us the dimensions of the characters through the loss and grief they carry. Renner’s Cory brings his own calm and quiet strength to the film as he scratches scars that never seem to heal. When a case is as familiar and close to his life as Natalie’s is, old wounds sting and Wind River acknowledges a cycle of violence that can’t seem to leave the American frontier when justice doesn’t serve the communities that need the most help.

This haunting film marks the directorial debut of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and it closes the thematic trilogy of violence in the American west that began with his scripts for Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario and David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water. (Although the forthcoming Sicario sequel affords the writer his own cinematic universe.) Wind River’s predecessors might be resoundingly American in their deconstruction of violent ideologies that have roots in frontier life, but it’s bound to resonate strongly with Canadian audiences given the urgent reports of countless missing and murdered Indigenous women.

Sheridan once again displays a firm grasp in intertwining crucial stories with high-calibre action and entertainment. While Wind River might be the most conventional of the three films, it’s an impressive debut by any measure, particularly for the sobriety with which Sheridan handles the direction. It would simply be inappropriate to pair this subject matter with an emphasis on style. Wind River is a technically assured thriller with ice-cold cinematography by Ben Richardson and a spine-tingling score by Warren Ellis (Hell or High Water) that evokes the spirits of the dead in the absence of Natalie and her poem’s refrain. The voices of spirits echo throughout the film as rumblings of restless souls murmur with the wind.

Wind River is leanest of the trilogy in style, but also the heaviest with the weight of its tale. Sheridan is respectful with his hand at violence and opts to show the brutality of crime in America and the pain without sensationalising the gun show even when it reaches an explosively violent finale. (A fine lesson taken from both Villeneuve and Mackenzie.) It’s especially interesting to see a consistent voice run through three films by three different directors. While the stylistic heavyweights are the first two films, one can’t comfortably call Sicario a “Denis Villeneuve film” or Hell or High Water a “David Mackenzie film” to a complete degree since there’s an authorial through-line to the trilogy that can’t be denied. At the same time, Wind River takes the trilogy a fascinating case study in the approaches that different artists interpret similar material.

There’s one stroke that slices deepest in both the direction and the writing, however, and that comes in a single cut that brings about an unexpected dramatic twist and shift in chronology before the climax. When Cory finally tracks the cougars in their midst and Jane seems to be heading for the moment in which Clarice encounters Buffalo Bill, Wind River offers a jarring edit that brings the audience back to the night of Natalie’s death. It makes us witness an act of violence so awful that the blowout that ensues afterward doesn’t register with the same sting. Wind River hits its mark by making the audience experience the hell that girls like Natalie endures at the hands of violent men, and the intense sense of loss their families feel in their wake.

Wind River opens in Toronto and Vancouver on Friday, August 11 and expands in the following weeks.