For the insufficiently prepared, Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation is one of the deadliest places in the Lower 48 states – largely because it’s among the coldest, windiest and snowiest. The small city of Lander, near the reservation’s southern border, is a Mecca for hardy outdoor sports enthusiasts, renowned as a gateway to adventure in the Wind River Range and as the international headquarters of the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), where many wannabe mountaineers go to hone their “leave no trace” wilderness survival skills. NOLS students learn not to try to conquer nature, but to respect her; and one of their first, most emphatic lessons is how to protect oneself from hypothermia. Cold will kill you out there with ease.
But the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho for whom the area is home face additional life-threatening challenges: poverty, drug and alcohol addiction and violent crime. Unemployment rates on the reservation exceed 80 percent; the average life expectancy is below age 50. Women in particular are subjected to rates of rape and murder that exponentially exceed those for their non-Native counterparts nationwide. But no agency, Taylor Sheridan tells us in the closing shots of his new movie Wind River, even bothers to keep track of the numbers of Native women who go missing.
That shocking non-statistic is about the only time that the film gets sociologically preachy, though Sheridan has said in interviews that it was a large part of his motivation in making it. Wind River is only his second directorial outing, but his screenwriting work on Sicario and Hell or High Water has earned him profuse praise and several major award nominations; some critics are pegging Wind River as the culmination of a trilogy about the bleaker side of the contemporary American West. It’s certainly dark and somber, merging the chilly anatomy lessons and bureaucratic frustrations of a police procedural with the morbid humor and grisly outbursts of Tarantinoesque noir and the frontier yarn-spinning voice of a Larry McMurtry novel (Sheridan has admitted to Newsweek that he was tonally inspired by Lonesome Dove in the writing of Wind River).
But scratch the surface of this film and you get much more than a detective thriller. As crack Fish & Wildlife Service predator-culler Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) and out-of-her-depth FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) try to find the killers of a young Native woman whose corpse Lambert discovers in the snow – far off-road and six miles from the nearest building – we see revealed the desperation of life on the “rez” and the ways in which the harsh environment drives people to make bad choices.
Banner starts out culturally tone-deaf and utterly unprepared for a Wyoming winter, but learns quickly, driven by her revulsion for the victim’s fate and her growing awareness that, as a sardonic, seen-it-all reservation sheriff played by the amazing Graham Greene tells her, “This isn’t the Land of Backup, Jane. This is the Land of You’re on Your Own.”
Wind River has an excellent cast across the board (with people of genuine indigenous ancestry filling all the Native roles), notably Gil Birmingham as Martin, the father of Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), the murdered girl. But Renner’s remarkable performance as Lambert rightly dominates our attention. At first glance, at work in the wild, he seems a clichéd Western action hero: a man of few words, a stoic loner, a hyperfocused, hypercompetent tracker and marksman. Back home in Lander and out on the reservation, a warmer, more complex character unfolds: devoted father to his half-Arapaho son, empathetic friend to Martin, willing assistant and non-judgmental mentor to the flailing FBI agent. Human connection, Sheridan’s smartly written script seems to be telling us, is the lifeline that keeps people from going crazy on this harsh frontier.
But there’s also a grimmer layer to Lambert’s determination to help: His own teenage daughter mysteriously disappeared three years earlier and is presumed dead, leading to the dissolution of his marriage; the latest murder victim, Natalie, had been her friend. While seeing what drives him makes for a richer character study, it also steers the film’s denouement toward a vengeance scenario that detracts from its aspirations to avoid the tropes of Hollywood Westerns – in this case, the “noble vigilante in a lawless land.” Still, the relationships depicted here have enough nuance to make us forget that Renner and Olsen are usually seen onscreen together as Marvel superheroes.
Wind River is a movie with a lot of strengths. Besides solid writing and some really fine performances, it boasts outstanding cinematography by Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and an evocative score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Its atmosphere will linger with you long after you leave the theater; I’d advise bringing along your coziest sweater.