Note: In the original version of this review, I wrote that the Wind River Indian Reservation was in Colorado. Wrong. And I even misidentified the actress who played Jeremy Renner's wife. I'm not sure what was going on in my brain as I posted this review. As more than one reader pointed out, the reservation is in Wyoming. Not Colorado. Stupid, stupid error. And I apologize. Now corrected. As for my take on the film, which several readers disagreed with, I stand my ground.
One question critics tend to get is, “Hey, I read your review. But I never could figure out whether you liked the movie or not. Well, did you?”
It’s a fair question, I guess, even if – sometimes – there is no easy answer. And a good case in point is Taylor Sheridan’s film “Wind River.”
On the surface, what Sheridan has given us is a well-made, standard murder mystery. Set on the Wind River Indian Reservation of West-central Wyoming – but filmed in the scenic mountains just outside Park City, Utah – “Wind River” begins with a haunting scene: As a female narrator recites a poem, we watch a young woman running, as if for her life, barefoot across a snowy landscape.
Later, a character named Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers the woman’s frozen corpse. And so the investigation into her death begins. Since the incident has occurred on federal land, an FBI agent is called in. But as a sign of either bureau budget restrictions, lack of available personnel, lack of interest or a blend of all three, the agent who shows up is young Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen).
Though woefully unprepared, Banner is smart enough to ask Lambert – a hunter/tracker employed by the wildlife service – for help. And pretty soon, the two of them – assisted by the tribal police chief (played by the always dependable Graham Greene) – are on the trail.
Sheridan, the screenwriter-turned-director who wrote the scripts for the movies “Sicario” and “Hell or High Water,” doesn’t clutter his plotline with a lot of digressions. Once Banner starts paying attention to Lambert, who can see what the land has to tell him, they fairly quickly stumble onto what happened.
Sheridan deserves credit for how he uses the landscape to underscore both the beauty, and the desolation, felt by the characters who live on the reservation. He proves capable of portraying sharp scenes of quick violence, of which the movie has two. And the role he has provided for Renner is the kind of meaty opportunity that an actor of Renner’s talent can make into something particularly special.
But there are two big problems here. One is that Sheridan, for all his good intentions, shuffles the Indian characters – from Greene as the sheriff, to Gil Birmingham as a grieving father, to Julia Jones as Lambert’s estranged native wife – off to the side. Wind River may be their home, but this is Lambert’s story. He, in the end, is the great white savior – which is a plot device Hollywood has been using since well before the days of John Ford and Howard Hawks.
And Sheridan is his own worst enemy. In a film postscript, he notes that young women have been disappearing off reservations at an alarming rate. This, he has said in interviews, is what inspired him to write and direct his movie.
And certainly, that’s an admirable aim. But how is a murder mystery centered on white characters the right way to address that particular problem?
So, did I like “Wind River.” Well, yes. And yet no. I really can’t be any clearer than that.