Movie Review – Wind River
Taylor Sheridan is the Oscar-nominated screenwriter for Hell or High Water (2016). He also wrote the script for the Oscar-nominated Sicario (2015). Sheridan has occasionally done some acting, but this is his directorial debut. A lot of what happens here felt like Sicario and Hell or High Water. A lot of themes present in those two films show up here. Yet, this movie works better because unlike his previous works, this one builds empathy for someone other than white people, especially in the face of a predominance of another minority. In Sicario, that minority was Mexican people. In Hell or High Water, that minority was the Native American people. He picks up with that same minority in this film. The difference is that he focuses on Native Americans in Wyoming and not Texas. The landscape in Sicario and Hell or High Water was the southwest, desert-like, hot and barren. The landscape here is seemingly opposite, at least in temperature. It’s snowy mountains, cold but ironically still as barren and poverty-stricken.
Jeremy Renner (Avengers: Age of Ultron and The Hurt Locker) stars as Cory Lambert, a horse rancher and hunter who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department. He’s white but his ex-wife and prepubescent son are Native American. He shares custody of his son with his ex-wife. He lives a lonely life but he’s a great dad who teaches his son how to hunt responsibly and how to interact and tame horses. It’s not clear why he and his ex-wife are separated but the fact that their teenage daughter, Emily is deceased has probably contributed to their current issues, or at least to Cory’s issues.
Elizabeth Olsen (Avengers: Age of Ultron and Martha Marcy May Marlene) co-stars as Jane Banner, a FBI agent from Ft. Lauderdale but who was stationed in Las Vegas. She’s sent to investigate when Cory discovers a dead body half-buried in the snow, half-way up the mountain. Her character is similar to Emily Blunt’s character, Kate Macer in Sicario. She’s not as personally invested as Kate. Cory is the one with personal investment, but Jane like Kate is the woman who is basically led around by the hand by the quiet, more seasoned man who ultimately enacts revenge.
What’s better here is that the point isn’t to undermine the woman professionally or even personally like Sicario does. Both movies seem to exist to open the eyes of women, as the men teach them a lesson about the terrible nature of the world. This film isn’t as cynical as Sicario or as pessimistic. This film though could be accused of the white savior stereotype or the male savior stereotype, but, as mentioned, this movie builds empathy on a level that neither Sicario nor Hell or High Water do.
Sheridan might argue that this film is a murder mystery that focuses on a singular victim, so the point is to make us feel empathy for the victim and the victim’s family. Yet, Sheridan’s films aren’t just shlock or sheer genre exercises. The last scene and its titles indicate Sheridan is aiming for bigger, cultural ideas and relevancy on a grander scale. To reach those aims and achieve that relevancy, building empathy is key. Sheridan didn’t direct Sicario or Hell or High Water, but it still suggests a lack of empathy on his part before.
Graham Greene (Dances With Wolves and Twilight) co-stars here as Ben, the police chief or sheriff of Lander, Wyoming. Gil Birmingham from Hell or High Water plays Martin Hanson, the father of the victim. He’s only in two scenes in this film, but you sympathize and empathize with him more than any character of color in any of Sheridan’s previous films. Arguably, many of Sheridan’s previous characters were criminals.
Sheridan’s writing here is so strong that you feel sympathy and empathy for Jon Bernthal (The Walking Dead and Daredevil) who plays Matt Rayburn, despite him being in only one scene, but we feel that sympathy and empathy for him accutely in that one scene. Bernthal was in Sicario with limited screen time there as well. His character in both films suffers similar fates, but we get so much more about his character and more depth to him here than in Sicario.
What’s also great about this film are the action scenes. There are surprising action scenes in Sicario and in Hell or High Water, but somehow the action scenes were more surprising here. Sometimes, the action would literally come out of nowhere or at unexpected times.
The film certainly sheds light on the plight of the Native Americans and this idea of survive or surrender, and even though the protagonists are white and the victims are the Native Americans, the movie does point out the privilege of people like Cory and Jane, as well as what’s been taken from Native Americans and how they’re continually disregarded and dismissed. That being said, more, young Native Americans need to be given center stage, and for one scene, Sheridan does that.
Martin Sensmeier (pictured above on right) is a 32-year-old, Native American from Alaska. He’s part of a tribe known as Tlingit. He started work as a model, which is no surprise given how gorgeous he is. That gorgeousness isn’t on display here though. He is a pure actor who is put opposite a Native American veteran like Graham Greene or even a heavy hitter like Jeremy Renner, and Sensmeier holds his own as Chip Hanson, the brother of the victim. Sensmeier had his big debut in The Magnificent Seven (2016), so here’s hoping he keeps working and becomes a star.
Rated R for strong violence, a rape, animal death and language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 47 mins.