Taylor Sheridan moves his American Western proclivities to Native American soil in Wind River, his directorial debut. After tackling drug cartels and bank robbers in the screenplays of Sicario and Hell or High Water, Sheridan’s concern this time around is the murder of a Native American on reservation land, brutally raped and forced to flee her attackers in the cold winter night. Barefoot and underdressed, she dies when her lungs seize with blood—but not before she covers six miles of ground. An FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) and a hunter/tracker (Jeremy Renner) team up to find her killers, and like most mystery thrillers, the duo learn a lot about each other during the investigation.
This is an interesting case, because the sparsely-inhabited reservation doesn’t produce a wealth of viable suspects. In fact, the mystery is uncomplicated almost to a fault, with connections so direct that it could easily fit into the structure of a short film. So it seems fairly evident that Sheridan is not out to give us the year’s best mystery film, and that Wind River is much more than what it appears to be. And so it is. The film is invested with a lot of pathos over the plight of Native Americans, who are constantly victimized or become irrevocably hardened against their condition. At times, its bleakness is overwhelming, and you almost beg for something to make you smile again. It’s not a nuanced approach to things, but it succeeds in getting under your skin.
What I would’ve liked: stronger characterization for the Native characters—especially the victim and her family. I did feel she acted more as a symbol for all missing and murdered Native women rather than as a full-fledged, autonomous being. Her parents were also a little too generalized for my liking, although Gil Birmingham does own every single minute of screentime he has. And as much as I liked Renner and his character, would it have been hard for Sheridan to have made the character a Native, too? A talented Native actor could have had a plum role there.
This is still very solid, though. The wintry setting manages to chill you right to the bone, and the injustices within the story make you bemoan the state of mankind. Not a knockout, but a worthwhile way to spend your time.