Wind River (2017)

Directed by Taylor Sheridan

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Wind River is the third film in Taylor Sheridan’s unofficial trilogy on the American frontier.  Sheridan previously wrote 2015’s Sicario and 2016’s Hell or High Water.  Each of these three films follows a group of people struggling to survive.  While the first two were set in the American Southwest, this one takes place in Wyoming but features just as many allusions to the idea of the American cowboy, reminding us of a time and place that tends to be sensationalized in cinema.

Those first two films focused on a unique, individual story, to draw a broader theme on the ways communities of people can be held back.  Sheridan tries to do the same thing in Wind River, but the sparse plot of the film only serves as a backdrop for characters, in heavy-handed moments, to discuss their pain and backstory.  The film feels mostly like a set of conversations centered around tortured personal stories, strung loosely together.  That might not be so bad if those stories didn’t feel so cliche (dead daughter story, for example) or overly-sentimental.

And that sentimentality itself might work if the characters were more engaging.  Jeremy Renner as a hunter named Cory Lambert comes across as much too stoic for us to care about.  I think there’s a common theme here of characters who have deeply internalized their pain and suffering (drawing parallels between Cory and the Indigenous population on the Wind River reservation as a whole), but instead of layering this idea in throughout the story or by focusing on the murder investigation plot at the movie’s core, we’re forced to sit and watch people deliver dramatic monologues that feel entirely disconnected from the plot.

The idea of a movie is to “show” rather than “tell,” but this movie really works hard to show us this investigation of a deceased 18 year old girl alongside these ruminative conversations that strongly contrast with the sense of urgency you’d normally associate to a murder investigation.

In fact, there is very little to that murder investigation.  FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is brought in from Las Vegas, and she requires Cory’s help to navigate the snowy tundra of the film’s setting.  Because the literal cause of death for the body they find is pulmonary embolism, the coroner cannot list this as a homicide, despite the overwhelming evidence that the girl was raped and beaten.  This means that the FBI will call Banner back to Las Vegas as the death is no longer under their jurisdiction.  But Banner can’t let this go, so she asks Lamber to aid her with this investigation.

This allows for moments like Lambert saying, “I hunt predators,” so Banner can say, “well why don’t you hunt one for me?”

If you isolated just the investigation storyline from the movie, it might play like a brief episode of Law & Order.  They notify the parents, meet the drug addict brother and his drug addict friends, learn about the girl’s boyfriend, find the boyfriend dead, then locate the oil drilling site where her boyfriend had worked as a security guard.  When they show up there, they get into a shootout with the people who killed the girl and her boyfriend.

There is very little mystery to this murder mystery.  Sheridan doesn’t even offer up many clues about who might’ve done it.  We simply follow Banner and Lambert without really playing the game alongside them.  The point, then, isn’t a ‘whodunnit?’  It’s about the thematic weight of what this investigation means, but that heavy-handedness took me right out of the story.  If you tell me upfront ‘this is a serious movie,’ I’m less likely to see it that way.

Because this movie kind of casts aside the A plot, focusing more on the solemn conversations about grief instead, there is very little intrigue to the investigation.  I had no reason whatsoever to care, but… maybe that’s the point?

Well, to get one thing out of the way, one of the most dynamic scenes is a flashback showing the deceased girl and her boyfriend on the night they died.  It occurs when Banner and her police backup visit the boyfriend’s trailer.  She knocks on the door, and we cut to the boyfriend, Matt (Jon Bernthal), answering the knock, only now it’s the night of the murder, and the one knocking is the deceased girl.  It’s an effective cut, and it has the effect of us immediately reevaluating who Bernthal is.  Often cast as a villain, here he’s one of the good guys.

Bernthal’s character feels alive where so many of the characters in this film do not.  He’s an engaging screen presence, which also may be part of the point of the movie, that everything is subsumed or killed in this part of the world.

But this flashback tells us everything we need to know about the murder plot, who was murdered and who did it.  Before, however, we have no reason to suspect the people who turned out to have been complicit in the murder other than checking the runtime of the movie and seeing that, yeah, it’s probably them because where else is the movie going to go in the last twenty minutes?

A captivating shootout follows, and it’s incredibly well-done, with bullets not just piercing its victims but really blowing them away, something that feels much more impactful than the bullet squibs we’ve become used to in movies.  This is where the movie feels less like it’s copying other movies and more like it’s its own creative beast.  Sheridan has a vision of this world, and he executes it incredibly well.

But, again, the movie is loaded with these melancholic conversations about death, grief, the history of Indigenous people in Wind River and discussions about the impossibility of escaping this dying community.  I appreciate that Sheridan is more interested in the thematic element of the story than just the action, but he seems to completely ignore the A plot.  It’s utterly disinteresting, and the characters are like puppets, repeating cheesy lines of dialogue that feel ripped from other movies.  And much of this dialogue is strictly expository, layering in the dead-child backstory that itself is a bit overused in storytelling (even showing up in Stranger Things as a form of forced empathy).

I found the Renner and Olson characters completely uninteresting, just mannequins delivering stilted one liners to express either their confidence or their fear.  Nothing about this felt natural.

Now, what I think Sheridan was going for was a depiction of the absolute bleakness of this reservation.  The indigenous population is made to suffer even today for what the white population did years ago.  The effects remain, and the film’s setting is one giant scarred landscape where it seems as though life can never flourish.  It’s a miracle that anyone lives or survives here, though they’re barely surviving.

In something like Hell or High Water, the broader point of the movie was woven into the bank robbers’ story, slowly revealed over time.  There weren’t too many heavy-handed discussions of the ways the world is dying.  There are some, to be sure, but for the most part it’s woven into the protagonists’ mission.  Like in Wind River, there is an explosive climax, almost as though Sheridan is trying to follow his own formula.

There is also something to be said about the fact that this is a story set on a Native American reservation, and the two lead characters are very, very white.  It’s maybe not the best idea, but it’s not surprising either.

After having seen this movie, I’m guessing that the story is more similar than I realize to Sicario and Hell or High Water, yet I didn’t feel burdened by the weight of the story.  In each film the characters feel weighed down, but the stories are engaging to watch, and the characters feel alive, people you want to know more about.  In Wind River, though, the characters are just soundboards for what Sheridan wants to say about grief.  It sometimes feels like the story completely comes to a halt for these brief monologues, and because Banner and Lambert don’t inspire empathy, it’s hard to really care.

Still, the film is about a group of people forced to swallow their tongue and hold their grief deep inside.  They are stoic on the outside but perhaps drowning internally, so that icy demeanor might just be an extension of such suppressed grief.

The final thirty or so minutes of the film come alive in a way the first hour didn’t, but you have to wade through that first hour of awkward exposition and familiarly jaded characters.

Up Next: 20th Century Women (2016), Grizzly Man (2005), Storytelling (2001)

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