There's something special about the desolation of cold, remote places. At once, they produce a sense of awe and alienation. Perhaps an expanse of snow under a grey sky creates a sense of standing in a vast nothingness. Or maybe it brings into focus the awesome, uncaring power of nature. Whatever the case, as I sat in a dark theater watching a murder mystery unfold in the vast wilderness of rural Wyoming, I was filled with melancholy wonder. How can people survive in a place that’s so cold that their lungs can literally freeze if they breathe too quickly? How can people live in place that’s hundreds of miles from the opportunities and amenities of the nearest city? According to Wind River, the latest film from writer-director Taylor Sheridan not everyone does survive this harsh environment.
Taylor Sheridan has always been fascinated with the rugged and lawless hinterlands of America. In his last two outings as screenwriter, in Sicario and Hell or High Water, he explored the blazing hot desolation of rural Texas. For his first major outing as director, he shifts to the deep freeze of winter at the Wind River Indian reservation in Wyoming. The film centers on animal tracker Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner). When he discovers the body of a dead Native American girl in the middle of nowhere on the rugged Wind River Indian Reservation, the FBI is called in to assist. Now, teaming up with rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) and Bureau of Indian Affairs Police officer Ben (Graham Greene), he must get to the bottom of a murder that shares disturbing similarities with events from his past.
While Wind River begins with the circumstances surrounding the murder of a teenage Native American girl, it quickly broadens into something much larger. Why do some people give up hope while others continue to dream? Why do people continue to live when their lives are full of grief and suffering? The film uses the vast expanse of the winter wilderness of Wyoming and its largely Native American inhabitants to explore these weighty questions. As we follow the protagonists around the reservation, we see the many forms that life can take in these harsh hinterlands. Through these people and their stories, the quotidian struggle for life comes into stark relief. Some people shrink into nihilism in the face of the challenges of life. Others plod forward even though they may not understand why. It’s a challenge that all of us face at one point or another in life. The power of this film stems from its use of the harsh conditions of the Wind River Indian reservation to engage in a humanist exploration of the meaning of life.
Everything comes together perfectly to serve the film’s lofty themes. The acting, on the part of the protagonists as well as the wider cast, is uniformly excellent. When I first saw Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker, back in 2009 I was expecting great things, but I haven’t been impressed since. Here, finally, he’s cast in the perfect role. His masculine confidence perpetually suffused with a patina of gloom reflects the ethos of the community he’s in. Elizabeth Olsen, too, captures the gradual realization of the true cruelty of life for some. The broader cast, too, creates a world that feels fully realized. The vast natural landscape that looms throughout the movie, also plays an important character. Here, cinematographer Ben Richardson, following his wonderful work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, captures the sublime winter landscape, effectively setting the overall tone of the film.
If Wind River has one flaw, it’s in the pacing of the plot. The film takes care to develop its characters and setting in the first two thirds of the film, but rushes its final act. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter too much. This isn’t a movie that’s constructed to keep you guessing. It’s not a movie that thrills with action sequences or thrilling moments. Instead, it’s a meditative film that elicits contemplation. As I left the theater after watching Wind River on a bright August day, I was left with the feeling that autumn was right around the corner. Before long, the leaves will fall away and the ground will freeze. It will be winter here in Chicago again, where I can get a small taste of nature’s indifference towards me. Of course, I’ll be sitting behind double-paned glass in a heated apartment drinking a warm cup of tea.