Wind River (USA 2017)
Wind River is the lost third season of True Detective, and it’s a shame that Tyler Sheridan’s screenplay wasn’t stretched and adapted into eight episodes of the groundbreaking HBO series. As a 110-minute film it is effective, but it drags in parts that needed seasoning while being sensational and almost feeling rushed when it’s really good.
Sheridan made two of the best American films of the past five years with Sicario and Hell or High Water, and although Wind River isn’t quite up to the marker set by those, it is nonetheless quite good. The story involves the death of a Native girl on a reservation in Wyoming who is discovered by a hunter (Jeremy Renner) for the Fish and Wildlife Department, and with it being suspected a murder, the police chief who answers to the Bureau of Indian Affairs brings in an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen). If you’ve seen True Detective, those hundred words tell you all you need to know as to why it would be perfect for the show.
Thus the questions: who is this girl, why is she barefoot in the snow in the middle of nowhere, and why is she barefoot? Renner seems to have a grasp of what happened before the chief and the fed can grasp that the girl is barefoot, and his backstory – far too heavy for the runtime, compelling but wildly out of context in how it’s presented – give him a morbid insight into what likely happened. Renner and even moreso, Olsen, are fish out of water on the reservation, a dynamic that – again – is difficult to convey in a movie of modest runtime; the TV show Longmire probably does the best job I’m aware of in regards to explaining life on a modern Native reservation as well as the trepidation that white law enforcement officers are viewed when they enter the reservation to investigate and query.
When the clues take law enforcement to a drilling rig high in the mountains, the film – which to this point is a slow burn – heats to a boil in a matter of minutes. Where Sheridan excels as a director is believable acts of violence perpetrated by both amateurs and professionals, and to what degree and with what skill each type can perpetrate such violence within the range we expect of them. The bank robbers of Hell or High Water or somewhat competent but make small, foolish mistakes that professionals would avoid; Emily Blunt’s cop in Sicario is horrified at the deadly efficiency and ruthlessness of the operators she is tasked of working with during a border-crossing gone haywire, in large part because people who haven’t spent their lives in military conflict and combat zones cannot quite comprehend how one skilled Delta can kill four men in a car in a matter of a couple seconds. Whether realistic or not, it makes for compelling immersion into the viewing experience.
Sicario and Hell or High Water have almost no slow moments – Wind River has several. There is nothing wrong with slow moments, but this isn’t a slow moment kind of story and the confusion in the pacing is the mistake of thinking that the existential contemplations of characters with difficult pasts equates to the rich layering of a complex story. The film opens with “based on actual events” and closes with the kind of coda that is reserved for the most comically self-serious music videos of the late 80s and early 90s – whether the script’s highly dubious claims are true or not is not relevant, the film is not a documentary and I assume it was done with profit in mind, thus using Natives in a story about a murder on a Native reservation in America to thrill what will overwhelmingly be a white American audience is a bit strange.
This I can forgive, as the sanctimony is literally left to said coda, while the movie as a vehicle for entertainment and a slight degree of enrichment is successful within its own established framework. Ergo, high recommend.