For all its beauty, Wind River is a hard film to watch. The crime thriller doesn’t delight in the whodunnit, entice us with clues, or sensationalize flashy violence. Rather, it makes the audience sit in sorrow for a few hours and feel the pain of a girl, a father, and a people.
The film, directed by Taylor Sheridan of last year’s Hell or High Water, opens on a pristine expanse of snow, broken only by a girl running desperately across it. She falls, gets up, and falls again, coughing up blood. Days later, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a tracker and hunter working for the Fish and Wildlife Service, finds her body on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. We learn that this woman died the same way Lambert’’s daughter did years earlier: both were raped and left in the snow miles from town. The striking similarities between the two killings, and the residual anger and grief over his daughter’s death, drive Lambert to track the murderer like one of the wild animals he hunts for his job. The understaffed Tribal Police call the FBI for reinforcement, but in a move that reflects how our federal government manages law enforcement on reservations, and especially in cases of violence against women, all the help they get is the determined but unprepared Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). Jane acts as a surrogate for the audience as she and Cory join forces to find the killer.
The antagonist of the film is as much the harsh Wyoming land as it is the murderer. Long shots of beautiful, bleak, white mountains and endless blizzards, a haunting score, and the occasionally too-pointed dialogue, articulate what the land has taken from the people who fight to survive there. Lambert alternately protects and exposes Agent Banner, whose naivete often puts her in danger, to the harshness of the environment and to the people in and around the Wind River Reservation. Given the long cinematic tradition of only portraying Native Americans as bad guys or caricatures, it is refreshing to hear a white character admit that the United States has failed Native Americans by forcing them into this hostile land, and the subsequent cycle of suffering.
Counterintuitively for a thriller, Wind River’s best moments come when Lambert and the murdered girl’s father (Gil Birmingham) try to communicate their grief to each other. Rather than ending with the capture and satisfying dispatch of the murderer, Wind River closes with a scene of the fathers of two murdered girls, accepting the weight of a past and a future heavy with suffering. Their stories and their struggles do not end with the conclusion of the action. Just as with the tragedies experienced by each of us individually and — as made clear in the film — by the Native American people, their pain continues on after others have stopped watching.