No ‘Call for Backup’ on the Reservation (Film Review: “Wind River”)


A tense thriller set in the wintry hinterland of a Wyoming Indian reservation, Wind River is as compelling a crime story as it is a somber reflection on the ruptured culture of a misplaced people.


SnapShot Plot

While much of the Northeastern U.S. is blanketed in snow by the latest in a series of storms, so should our movie choice this weekend match the whiteout conditions outside our windows. So let’s ring in Spring with the character-rich Wind River, a deeply felt nail biter that reunites co-stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen in performances that underscore the merits of self-reliance and the stubborn quest for truth, against a harsh natural backdrop that imposes itself into every frame of the story.

In one of the most evocative scenes in memory, the movie opens with a poetic voiceover on a frozen, moonlit night where a young woman is desperately running, barefoot, across a wide expanse of snow. The camera shoots her from every angle and we are left wondering if she’s being chased, or stalked, and if so, by what or by whom. In daylight, we are introduced to hunter/tracker Cory Lambert (Renner’s character), the only white man who (by virtue of a marriage to his now estranged Native American wife) is allowed on the Wind River Reservation, a no-man’s land in the mountains of Wyoming the size of Rhode Island. While tracking a predator coyote (in a magnificently shot wilderness scene), Lambert comes upon the body of the young woman. Thus begins the mystery that brings a by-the-book rookie FBI field agent named Jane Banner (the Olsen character) to the reservation. So well cast against type in this film, Olsen’s Jane realizes she’s out of her depth, as she sees she’s under staffed and ill-equipped to handle not only the physical challenges of the terrain but to navigate within a community she doesn’t understand, who also see her as an interloper from a world to which they feel disenfranchised. The local sheriff, played by legendary Native American character actor Graham Greene, encourages Cory to assist Jane, and together they embark on piecing together the mystery surrounding the girl’s final hours. For Jane, it begins as a field case that turns into a test of her willpower and courage. For Cory, it’s a deeply personal journey that dredges up a well of sorrow and regret which has haunted him for years.



Parting Shot

Wind River marks the 3rd feature film pairing of Renner and Olsen, who appeared together in both of The Avengers movies. Penned by Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water, Wind River marks Sheridan’s directorial debut with this passion project which reflects his deep feelings about the indigenous Native American tribes languishing on reservations across the country. By all accounts he has succeeded in capturing at least some of  the complex societal and political factors that have contributed to the atmosphere of malaise and moral impoverishment which seep through life on the reservation. Sheridan was helped in no small part by partial funding from both the Shoshone and Arapahoe tribes of the Wind River Reservation itself in Wyoming. Additionally, the production gained a degree of verisimilitude by virtue of regular visits to the set by tribal Chiefs who offered expert counsel on the portrayal of Indian life on the reservation. An example of the narrative integrity of the film is also evidenced by the casting of activist and Menominee Tribal Chairman, Apesanahkwa (also a Vietnam combat veteran) in the role of Cory’s father-in-law, who in real life works tirelessly to inform the world on the political and social nuances of the Native experience in America.

Although the story was set in Wyoming, most of the actual production took place about an hour’s drive from Park City, UT in stunningly beautiful landscapes which could only be reached by snowmobiles and larger snow-cats hauling every piece of equipment onto the film sets. No trailers, no craft tables, no heat lamps. This alone – according to Olsen and Renner – made for a production shoot that itself mirrored the overall atmosphere of isolation and brutal self reliance inherent in the story. Notwithstanding the larger political and social themes richly conveyed in the movie, at its core Wind River is a deeply satisfying mystery in which it’s refreshing to see a partnership between a man and a woman based on mutual respect rather than steeped in hackneyed tropes of Hollywood romance. And the final scene between Cory and Jane is so simple and pure that when it’s over you realize you’ve been holding your breath.

Wind River is presently streaming on Netflix.

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