Wind River

The Western has changed quite a lot since films like Stagecoach and Shane. This may have been due to a rethinking of American history and current events going on in modern America, like Watergate, the JFK assassination, and Vietnam. As historians looked back to the period of American colonialism and “the Wild West” and reassessed it, they revealed a darker and more terrible version of events than the ones led by American exceptionalism and manifest destiny. It is a darker grittier more genocidal history and as such, it affected the films made about the West. The Western became more dour, more existential, more tied to a self-reflexive analysis of the myth of America and the American hero. As such we got revisionist westerns, films like Unforgiven, No Country for Old Men and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, movies that are aware of the issues presented in ideas of American Western heroes, the narratives of the myth of the West and the destructive, dangerous nature of these myths. Another Western is released this week with hopes of joining the ranks of these highly esteemed cinematic classics addressing something that so few westerns have: the native people of America. That film stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen and is called Wind River.

Set on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, Fish and Wildlife Service hunter, Cory Lambert (Renner), comes across the body of a young resident of the reservation. Alongside a fresh faced FBI agent, Jane Banner (Olsen), and Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene), Lambert investigates the odd circumstances that lead to the death of this young girl, that closely resembles that of his own daughter. Wind River operates very clearly in the mode of a revisionist western. For the most part it does an excellent job exploring the themes of the genre and the mystery that the characters are presented with. Tying both these things together, it explores the nature of masculinity in an American context and what that means within what would have been a standard revenge narrative.

It also raises important issues about the plight of Native Americans and the constant disadvantages and prejudices they still suffer at the hands of the United States, its people and its government. Indeed the film closes with a message about how there is no known statistic for missing Native American women. Personally, I am always a little wary of how the narratives of oppressed people are told by a member of the privileged, however, writer/director Taylor Sheridan, who wrote Sicario and Hell or High Water, is tremendously sensitive to these problems and deals with them so that this film does not devolve into Dances with Wolves territory.

Like most westerns, before it, Wind River has an understanding of the land that shaped a genre and a people. Every shot is breathtaking in its harsh beauty; mountains rise up high above the tree line, snow covers the land in a pure blanket of white. But the film is aware of the grimier parts, not shying away from the drab interiors of the homes of the reservation residents stuck battling these harsh elements. The film shows the duality of America, with its captivating scenery that is both gorgeous and deadly, and the squalor that sits between the trees and mountains.

Fighting the wilderness inside and out are some striking characters that push the story and theme along to new heights. Jeremy Renner is captivating as Cory Lambert, who is what we think of as a typical Western hero. However, he shows a depth of emotional vulnerability that is moving beyond words. The standout scenes are usually between him and Gil Birmingham as the father of the murder victim.  Elizabeth Olsen does good work as the rookie FBI agent trying to find her feet and place where the residents make it plain that she does not belong. Even in the smaller roles the actors shine; Martin Sensmeier as Chip is just wonderful and the small cameo by Jon Bernthal is something to behold. I won’t go into too much detail, but there is something almost primal about the emotional intensity in the film and it is all down to the great performances.

However, where this film falls flat, and it is probably the wrong place for any film to falter, is right at the climax. The film itself almost seems to say to itself “oh right we need an end. Okay, here that’ll do”. While it is not the worst thing imaginable, it can be an incredibly distracting shift and one that took me out of the film entirely, leaving quite an odd taste in my mouth. It almost seems to contradict itself at the very finish and I was incredibly disappointed that the film never struck the landing that I thought it deserved. It just didn’t feel right with the tone that the film had been building up to at that point and I was incredibly angry and disappointed with a film that could have been marvellous.

Faltering climax aside, you should see Wind River, it is a beautiful film full of stunning cinematography and emotion. I was enthralled the minute the film started and it was only the final moments that truly shook me out of my rapture at the end. If you can, get past that last impression to find something with an important message about something happening on the surface of American prejudice and something more insidious hiding underneath it all.


Updated: Sep 07, 2017

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