Taylor Sheridan’s true crime film Wind River is poetic, quiet, and intense. Every shot felt deliberate, every line carefully crafted and sincerely delivered. Wind River might be one of my favorite films this year. It knocked me out of the park.
Sheridan’s film begins with Cory, Jeremy Renner’s character, hunting in the desolate snow-covered hills of Wind River and discovering a young Native woman’s corpse. Her name is Natalie, and she’s the daughter of Cory’s friend Martin. Rookie FBI agent Jane Banner comes to the scene to determine the cause of death. Banner respects Cory’s intuition for the land the snow, requesting that he assist her. The film is spent unfolding the mystery of Natalie’s death.
Here’s a few things that I really loved about this film:
+ Emotional pacing: The first half of the film is typical of a drama. It builds the rich exposition. It unfolds the tragic event that breaks apart Cory’s family and renders him determined to help the police find the assailant. The film’s latter half feels more like an action film, violent and visceral.
Even in the second and third act’s action, Wind River stays laser-focused on this tension between survival and empathy. It asks difficult questions–in a world of darkness, how can we trust others? How do we reconcile this instinct for self-preservation with our instinct for companionship? This instinct for self-preservation is not just physical–it extends to emotional expressions. When the characters mourn, they mourn alone. Hopefully, without spoiling much, the film chooses companionship and empathy.
+ That cinematography, though: Wide shots of the seemingly endless white snowy mountains amplify the themes of survival and self-preservation.The main setting is the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. It’s set in the dead of winter. It’s cold, it’s dark. There are few living things outside, except for a mixed array of sheep and foxes that almost blend in with the never-ending tufts of white snow.
+ Elizabeth Olsen: Oh, Elizabeth Olsen, you’ve been out of my radar, you assertive, vulnerable, joy of an actress. I loved Olsen’s character in this film. She’s spunky, but not in an annoying way. She possesses self-awareness about her inexperience. She ponders her usefulness in the case but proves herself a fighter in the face of danger. She’s an emotionally nuanced character. Despite being led by logic, Jane isn’t beyond apologizing or stepping back when she unknowingly crosses emotional boundaries.
+ Exploration of Male Grief: This film creates a multi-dimensional painting of masculinity, capturing its shallow strengths but also its capacity for emotional vulnerability. Cory’s emotional arc in the film is resoundingly clear, yet it’s also refined, with many different layers. On the outside, he’s an average Joe who blends in with the rest of the crowd. Like, literally blend in with his white hunting suit. A closer inspection reveals that his aloof exterior belies his fragility. He’s a broken man–poor, divorced, and haunted by a tragic past. He can cry. I enjoyed Gil Birmingham’s performance as Martin, the grieving father of the dead girl. When confronted by Jane, he’s abrasive, snarky even. But like Cory, he has a deep sense of his family’s brokenness–including his wayward son and his overwrought wife. Cory and Martin share genuine emotional moments together, honestly a rarity in pop culture at large.
+ Nuanced, specific story about Native issues: I came into the movie anxious that it may clumsily appropriate Native culture and offer flat characters who would either be benign or violent. I’m not of indigenous descent or an indigenous scholar, so it’s not my place to speak on the authenticity or respectfulness of the film. As a viewer, I did feel like I left having learned more about the issues that Native communities experience, such as the marginalization of women, incarceration of young men, and bureaucratic unfairness. The indigenous characters were also incredibly well-developed, with complex layers to them. And I can’t believe I have to say this, but I’m glad that the casting team selected actual Native American actors, like Gil Birmingham, Julia Jones, Kelsey Chow, Graham Greene, and Martin Sensmeier.
Wind River is an absorbing, untold story with understated performances and beautiful cinematography. Its haunting quality is grounded in the visceral reality of human corruption. But despite weighing the human capacity for evil, it illuminates the possibility of empathy in a very dark world.