Taylor Sheridan (writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water) loves storytelling that is neo western and neo noir but that is still very old fashioned in a way that can be both comforting and disquieting. In Wind River, having donned the director’s viewfinder he’s crafted an excellent, bloody, revenge story even if it is one caught half way between high minded revisionism and bloody reaction.
Jeremy Renner’s Lambert is introduced literally keeping the wolves from the sheep. As a hunter on a remote, snowy, Indian reservation he’s paid to use stoic minded violence to protect the weak. After finding the body of a familiar, young, native woman he is teamed up with an out of towner and fellow paleface FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen). Together they set out to solve the murder against the icy backdrop of an impoverished, forgotten patch of wilderness, peppered by the homes of impoverished first peoples.
To get this out of the way; yes the movie has something of a white saviour problem. The filmmakers clearly have sympathy for the people who inhabit the world of the film. Still, both leads being Caucasian does make the natives feel a little too much like set dressing if you’re a guilty minded think-piece reader. As an ode to toughness and old fashioned grit it galls that, one scene in particular, revolves around our white hero telling a young tearaway native to harden up if he wants to get things done. It’s Dangerous Minds in the snow. Strong as the film may be, the casting does have the effect of making it feel less Howard Zinn and more Steven Seagal than I’m sure anyone wanted.
If you can quiet those voices in your head though, well, this is a really well put together movie. Sheridan clearly admires the trad, male work ethic. Lambert is a hero that we see crafting his own bullets and knowing his job inside out. The script is similarly solid and workmanlike. The central mystery unfolds in a way that is engaging and often brutal. At times there is a bit too much monologuing (for an ode to men that don’t talk much there is a lot of theatrical chin stroking. I mean, it opens with a poem) but when it gets down to business this is a great, grim watch.
The performances throughout are broad but believable. Olsen is first introduced as a know nothing out of towner. We are reminded that she is a woman with a pantie shot. From this inauspicious start she manages to negotiate the stock character progression of a rookie that needs to bloody her hands in a way that is truly impressive. Renner feels like he’s playing a companion character to his role in The Hurt Locker except that, here, he’s shooting mountain lions, not defusing bombs. Whenever violence flares up, which is often, we care not just because it’s horrific but because we don’t want these people hurt. John Bernthal has a memorable, small role that sticks in the mind despite a short screen time.
As a polemic aimed at addressing historical wrongs Wind River comes up short. As a movie about a man having to do what he has to do? It works.