How to Track a Murderer—But Not His Victim
Writer-director Taylor Sheridan’s latest film starts with a poem spoken softly over a young woman’s desperate flight across a snow-covered landscape, and it ends with a superimposed statement about the absence of statistics on how many Native American women go missing each year. Each bookend suggests the high-minded aspirations of the filmmaker. At the beginning, the art and gentle emotion of the written word come juxtaposed with images of brutality: the young woman runs barefoot and bloodied in the bitter cold, her rush through the punishing elements an obvious race for her life. The final scene offers its startling message atop the tableau of two men sitting beside one another; each has lost a Native American daughter to violence.
Mr. Sheridan’s intentions seem clear. As the screenwriter, he seeks to reveal a little-known but urgent societal problem in the United States. In his guise as director, he hopes to do so with grace and a sense of import.
It’s difficult to argue with such noble aims. Unfortunately, a film comprises more than the sum of its ambitions. That’s not to say that Wind River has nothing more than its lofty goals recommending it. At its core, the tale is one worth telling, all the more so because it is based on real events—on “thousands of actual stories just like it,” according to Mr. Sheridan. A young woman ends up dead in the middle of a boreal wilderness on Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation, the victim of beating and rape. Who victimized her, and in the process, drove her to her fatal run out into the unforgiving winter night? Although the medical examiner lists the cause of death as resulting from the effects of exposure, it is plain to the authorities that they’re looking at a murder.
The nature and affiliations of those authorities constitute a significant issue for the film. While hunting mountain lions that killed local livestock, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), an officer of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, finds the body of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille), the young Native American woman from the opening scene. Lambert contacts a tribal police officer named Ben, ably portrayed with appropriate world-weariness by the wonderful Graham Greene. Ben calls in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, not just because he has only six officers to patrol thousands of square miles, but also owing to jurisdictional issues; depending on who committed the crime, the tribal police may have no authority to do anything.
Enter Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), who wants to help, but who also understands the challenging circumstances created by the imposing wilderness, the oppressive weather, and the lack of available investigative resources. The FBI has sent her—and only her—from her post in Las Vegas, seven hundred miles away. At one point, before approaching a person of interest in the case, she suggests to Ben that they wait for additional officers to arrive, and he informs her that, “This isn't the land of backup...this is the land of ‘you’re on your own.’”
Faced with such difficulties, Agent Banner enlists the aid of Fish and Wildlife Officer Lambert—a problematic choice from both a cinematic and a real-world perspective. While Graham Greene’s Native American character remains present for the duration of the investigation, the film focuses on its two white leads. There may be nothing intrinsically wrong with two such characters working to solve a crime on a reservation, but Wind River does not exist in a vacuum. Bigotry and the oppression of minorities in the United States have long and ignominious histories in this country. In addition to the systemic prejudice baked into the fabric of the nation from its inception, recent times have borne witness to a rise in overt racism. Native Americans have faced such troubles since the first Europeans set foot on the continent. The widespread impoverishment of their communities has become institutionalized, leading to a plethora of other cruelties, including high crime rates, severe alcohol and drug abuse, undereducated youth, and a wholesale lack of opportunity. Wind River gives voice to some of these issues, but the choice to have a pair of white people solve the central conflict of the film feels tone-deaf, if not unintentionally condescending.
One of the two main characters, Cory Lambert, does have real ties to the Wind River community, including an ex-wife, a young son, and in-laws, all of them Native American. As the film unfolds, the audience witnesses his respect for the local culture, as well as his understanding of the often crippling nature of the reality in which it resides. When one character asserts the role of simple good fortune in their surviving a particularly dangerous encounter, Lambert declares, “Luck lives in the city. Luck don’t live out here.”
Jeremy Renner turns in a solid, understated performance—perhaps too understated, given the details of his character’s backstory. He knows the dead Natalie Hanson not just by name, but because she was the best friend of his own daughter, who died three years earlier, murdered by an unknown sexual assailant. That personal history accounts for his immediate willingness to assist Agent Banner in her search for Hanson’s killer. He couldn’t prevent his daughter’s death, nor could he even find justice for her, but perhaps he can help in the hunt for her best friend’s murderer.
Elizabeth Olsen portrays Agent Banner as a green FBI operative, but one whose lack of experience detracts neither from her competence nor her earnest desire to identify and arrest Hanson’s killer. Ms. Olsen imbues her character with a humanity and professionalism that keeps the story moving forward. Perhaps her strongest moment comes when she finds herself on the brink of a gunfight between two groups of anxious men; Banner offers the lone voice of reason, calming the fears of the competing, testosterone-infused factions and convincing all of those present to lower their weapons.
The film proceeds from start to finish—but for the revelation of the crime—in a linear fashion, weighed down by the unrelenting inequity of life on the reservation. In his role as the young dead woman’s father, Gil Birmingham delivers a mix of sorrow and steel, the former for the loss of his daughter and the toll it has taken on his wife, the latter for the white FBI agent who questions his parenting choices. Neither the script nor Mr. Birmingham’s performance play into the stereotype of the silently strong Native American male. He answers all of Agent Banner’s questions with unconcealed resentment, but when a good friend shows up at his door, the tall, strapping man hugs him and breaks down in tears.
The plot moves along slowly but steadily. For any in the audience observing closely, the direction the film will take seems plain almost from the start. Although the frigid locale and the bitter societal backdrop add a heft to the storytelling, the narrative does not otherwise distinguish itself; Wind River plays out as a fairly standard murder mystery. Despite the majesty of the snowy, mountainous scenery, the cinematography does not rise above the prosaic. The script sets out to do more than simply tell the tale of a young woman’s murder and the hunt for her killer, but the direction too often treats subtext like dialogue. The film embodies a powerful theme, shining a light on the arduous existence many Native Americans face, but the intensity of that illumination occasionally washes out that message in bursts of heavy-handedness. There is a justness to the apparent aims of the filmmaker, and Wind River is worth seeing, but it feels like it should have been great rather than merely good.