Wind River review

I rarely write pieces dedicated to a single film, because I know I’d want to write a post for every film I see; and I’d want to look into my back-catalogue of favourites and catch up on great films I missed writing out. However, sometimes, I see a film that I simply have too many thoughts on to not write about. Wind River (2017, Sheridan) was one of those films.

I saw Wind River two days ago, and I am still thinking about it. There are several scenes, conversations and even single shots that have stuck with me. I cannot wait to rewatch it. I had been anticipating this film since its first trailer – it combines one of my favourite places in the world, Wyoming; one of my favourite genres, the thriller; and a harsh snowy setting which is a sure-fire way to ensure I watch a film. Not to mention, it stars Elizabeth Olsen (Avengers: Age of Ultron (2014, Whedon), Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, Durkin)) who I adore and think is highly-underrated. I am also a fan of Jeremy Renner due to his Joss Whedon connections, and since his performance in Arrival (2016, Villeneuve) I’ve found his more serious roles quite enrapturing. He does a lot of below-the-surface acting, which from a director’s point of view I find fascinating.

Wind River is a chilling, tense and haunting account of a wildlife tracker and FBI agent hunting a young woman’s killer. It was inspired by the countless Native American women who go missing, are assaulted and murdered on reservations in America. Writer-Director, Taylor Sheridan, lived on one such reservation for several years and has mentioned in interviews that some of the residents confided their stories to him and gave him permission to use them within his films. It is also a key point that there are no statistics on missing Native American women, and the laws within reservations relating to outsiders are incredibly outdated and murky, allowing white people to come in and effectively behave outside the law. I will not get deeply into this as it is beyond my knowledge, but the film draws attention to it and its overall message is one of awareness.

Of course, this is another film made by a white man telling the stories of other cultures, races and genders – and the film itself is full of well-meaning white people. It could easily be interpreted that this film is yet another attempt to indulge our white-guilt and a meagre cinematic attempt to absolve our years of oppression and invasion. I cannot speak on that account, as from a white-perspective I felt it was good, but I am not the right person to judge. In my opinion, it drew attention to white privilege, our history with regard to Native Americans, and it also portrayed the Native Americans as diverse, flawed, real, multi-dimensional characters. But, this is another film where the Native Americans are victims, and the heroes are the two white people.

The film itself feels recollective of Silence of the Lambs (1991, Demme) and Certain Women (2016, Reichardt) in its combination of matter-of-fact brutality and sprawling, wistful Western landscapes. In fact, it reminded me considerably of Kelly Reichardt’s filmmaking – which I am a huge fan of – in its cinematography and directing, especially. Anyone could create beautiful shots when filming in snow-covered Wyoming, but it is truly good cinematography when the simple conversations or interior scenes match the tone and quality of the exteriors. The cinematography was just as beautiful and haunting as the story, and while the landscapes undeniably aided this, the cinematography used the scenery in the best way and heightened its beauty.

The sound is another feature I kept noticing – while in places I felt it was trying too hard to be an emotional cue (a cinematic pet peeve of mine), in general the sound was excellent and simply added to the power of the story, acting and location. It did not try to overpower, simply enhance. At moments it was a hauntingly beautiful and fragile score, trickling over a scene, and at times the diegetic sound of wind and snow drew you thick and fast into the film so much you could almost see your breath on the air.

Finally, the story and narrative itself. Sheridan has proven himself to be a more-than-capable writer with his Sicario (2015, Villeneuve) and Hell or High Water (2016, McKenzie) screenplays, however I am very pleased he chose Wind River as his directorial debut. All three of Sheridan’s unofficial ‘modern frontier trilogy’ deal with how we have evolved and the very nature of violence within man; often showing us how tethered we are to this violence through people inside or outside of the law. And Wind River is no different. The characters in Wind River live almost without the law. While there is a small Tribal Police force, they must cover the entire reservation, and the reservation is sort of left to itself, existing outside the rest of America. This of course results in people acting without consequences – both in real life and the film.
As we have seen recounted in multiple post-apocalypse films, in Lord of the Flies and in ‘shipwrecked’ reality shows – when you remove rules (even if these are rules not strictly adhered to) and an authority, people rapidly begin doing whatever they like. This would be okay, if whatever they like was not so frequently violent and brutal. In Wind River we see both sides of this existence – people who have no structure and have turned to drugs, and our antagonists who have come to this ‘lawless’ place from outside the reservation and see fit to do as they like, with who they like, however they like. The brutality and mob mentality of men is explored and exposed in Wind River, terrifyingly so. We have seen this in previous films like Irreversible (2002, Noé) and Straw Dogs (1971, Peckinpah) – what happens when men stop thinking about consequences or decide they can simply do as they want. But Wind River left me more scared and existential than any of those other films I have seen or studied. I don’t know if this is because of the modern day setting, or the fact I have visited and love Wyoming, or the fact it was depicted more brutally than (perhaps) those other films, but either way I am more unsettled than ever before.

The film is an excellent study of masculinity in this sense, and it explores beyond the integrated violence within man; touching on toxic masculinity and showing us four great, diverse examples of well-written male characters, who all embrace and deal with emotions in different ways – how many films can you see two men crying at different points, openly discussing grief, emotionally connecting with their children etc. I was pleasantly surprised with the scene where Renner’s character hugs and sits his son on his lap after a nightmare, rather than telling him ‘don’t be scared’. I honestly appreciated this for so many reasons, and I loved that the film found a way to comment on and highlight male violence while also showing positive examples of male characters.

I also appreciated the fact that the story wasn’t overdramatised. It didn’t need to be, and although it was suspenseful, it wasn’t filled to the brim with drama and build-ups for the sake of build-ups. The dialogue was sharp, with some provocative and poignant lines. The acting was, for the most part, subtle and realistic, and it was absolutely perfect cast. Gil Birmingham as a grieving father was incredible, Olsen and Renner were predictably excellent, and a cameo from John Bernthal was an unexpected surprise.

Wind River is an all-rounder. It has left me truly moved – in what way I am not sure – and it has made me think. It is beautiful from a filmic perspective and from a socio-cultural, political standpoint. It goes beyond the binary good/bad race struggle and emphasises that both sides have good and bad, and uses the wider issue to discuss masculinity and violence. Breathtaking at times, and quite overwhelming, I cannot say how important is it that you see Wind River.

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