Directed by Taylor Sheridan (2017)
by Benjamin Leonard, Best Boy
“It is the great shame of my nation the manner in which it has treated the native inhabitants of North America. Sadly, my government continues that shame with an insidious mixture of apathy and exploitation.”
-Taylor Sheridan at Cannes 2017
Writer/director Taylor Sheridan clearly had honorable intentions in creating Wind River, his follow-up script to last year’s Hell or High Water. It takes place on Wyoming’s Wind River Indian Reservation and highlights the bleak conditions that the community (barely) survives in. The majority of the inhabitants are unemployed and either intoxicated or incarcerated. Sheridan went on to say, “There is nothing I can do to change the issues afflicting Indian country, but what we can do as artists - and must do - is scream about them with fists clenched. What we can do - is make sure these issues aren't ignored. Then the people who can effect change will be forced to.” While I wholeheartedly agree with this statement, if he thinks he’s screaming with this film, I disagree. He’s given a mumbled aside, at best.
The majority of Wind River centers around Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a fishing and wildlife officer, escorting Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a bumbling FBI agent, around the reservation while she attempts to solve a murder. The terrible conditions of the reservation are regularly present, but the inescapability and oppressive weight of these conditions are absent.
This is an all-too-common issue I have with Hollywood. They break their arms in order to pat themselves on the back in congratulations for doing nothing more than making note of an atrocity. But enough of my views on the politics of cinema and this particular film’s reception.
The first twenty minutes feature some beautifully shot landscapes, the first of which features the death of a young native woman as she runs barefoot through the snow and collapses. Unfortunately, these are interspersed with (and ultimately entirely replaced by) terribly shot dramatic scenes with too much shaking and panning that are then violently edited together. Through these scenes, we follow Lambert as he interacts with his ex-wife (Julia Jones), goes about his job hunting mountain lions, hangs out with his in-laws and barely acts as a father to his son. Eventually FBI agent Banner arrives. She’s unprepared for the upcoming “massive snowstorm” (which, when it does arrive, appears to amount to about three inches) or any interaction she’s about to have out there in the wilderness. It’s a good thing she can team up with Lambert! He’s there to give her some insight into the living conditions of the reservation as well as some long underwear that his dead daughter doesn’t have much use for anymore. In doing so, we get a gratuitous and uncomfortable shot of Elizabeth Olsen’s butt in a thong.
However, that’s not the only terrible thing about Olsen in this movie. I don’t think there’s a single scene that she’s in that is better than mediocre, and in most she’s just bad. It’s not entirely her fault. The character is loathsome, the dialogue is ignorant and she doesn’t seem to have been given much direction.
Despite the shit-talking we’ve given Jeremy Renner in the past, he actually pulls this role off fairly well. He may have even benefited from the lack of direction. The character is a quiet, but mostly honorable, schlub. He’s making an effort to do the right thing, even though he’s clearly part of the problem himself. He’s pretty much the dictionary definition of both “white savior” and “cultural appropriation." I guess he’s supposed to act as a go-between, showing the ignorant Banner (and general audience) what it’s like to live on the reservation, but in a relate-able white man’s face. He goes around acting as if all of the native people’s problems are shared by him, but they aren’t. Not fully. And that’s a problem because in the meantime, he’s ignoring his son (who actually is part native) who could use a good role model or else he will end up a victim of the system that he’s complaining about.
But there I go back on my rant about the politics in this movie when it has so many problems beyond that. Mostly, the movie is full of genre cliches that have been mashed together and most of which don’t make any sense. I can’t go into it without spoiling things, but I’ll just say there’s a big stupid Silence of the Lambs reveal rip-off that was so terribly executed that I think I was ACTUALLY scratching my head afterwards wondering WTF?
Oh, and did you see on IMDb that Jon Bernthal is in this? Did you think maybe that’d make for at least a couple enjoyable scenes? Well, he’s not and it didn’t. JB shows up pretty close to the end, and his scene absolutely destroys the pacing of the movie. Things were almost getting to the point of bearable as the story was finally moving along when WHAM! Bernthal shows up and starts rambling for about five minutes before the next plot point comes along.
In the end, there’s a big shoot-out where many people from the local community that Lambert supposedly cares so much about are killed but he only runs to help the poor misguided FBI agent Banner. This really didn’t sit well with me. Was it supposed to be a love story, because I didn’t see any evidence of that. The movie showed us Lambert’s relationships with these people. He seemed to care deeply about the community. Why would he run off for this blonde bimbo in a thong? (Also, i can’t abide watching Graham Greene get shot while no one on-screen cares. I love that dude! And he was actually pretty good in this movie too.)
The movie opens telling us that it is inspired by actual events. What it should have said was that it was inspired by SOOOOOOOO MANY actual and horrific events that it would make you sick. Instead, what we are gonna do is hand you this candy-coated version that you can easily digest and it’ll even make you feel better afterwards because maybe you’ll think that you understand the world around you just a little bit better (but you don’t).