Wind River (2017)

Taylor Sheridan’s heart is on his sleeve in his directorial debut in gripping, atmospheric Native American thriller Wind River.

Hunters in the Snow

by Alexa Dalby

Wind River

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

A desperate young woman runs barefoot across a deserted snow-covered landscape – it’s a wild, elemental plain with no sign of human habitation. Her frost-bitten corpse is found by Corey (Jeremy Renner), a veteran hunter, out alone shooting wolves. He recognises her. She’s Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), a Native American from the Wind River reservation. When the autopsy reveals she had been brutally raped multiple times and was likely running from her attackers, the local Indian Affairs police classify her death as homicide and the nearest FBI agent is called in. To their dismay, an inexperienced young woman turns up – Jane (Elizabeth Olsen) – unprepared for the harsh, sub-zero conditions.

Natalie went missing several days ago, yet her father Martin (Gil Birmingham) did not report it. Both Martin and Corey have lost daughters in unexplained circumstances and in fact, it turns out the two daughters were best friends.

The film is inspired by actual events – the numbers of Native American women who go missing every year or whose deaths are unexplained, yet which are never investigated. But Corey is a hunter, and now he moves his focus from animal to human predators. He promises grief-stricken Martin that he will find his daughter’s killers and he joins forces with FBI agent Jane, who needs his help to track them down.

Wind River unfolds amid the most spectacular, monumental, snow-covered Wyoming plains and mountains. Blizzards and coping with extreme weather conditions dominate what human beings can achieve in that life-threatening enviroment. The Wind River Reservation, where Native Americans were relocated and the hostile environment they were forced to live in, fosters an ongoing sense of resentment, along with the prevailing establishment attitudes towards them that make them second-class citizens in their own country. The two dead young girls were trying to make a life outside – either by education or by marriage – but Taylor Sheridan’s film highlights that the treatment of Native Americans in general has caused resentful, wasted lives and a hopeless younger generation who turn to drugs and crime.

There’s a cleverly segued flashback that casts a light on the actual events of that night but Wind River is a murder mystery where the reason why is more important than who did what. The bigger picture unfolding on those never-ending landscapes is what matters. It’s about what kind of morality led to the events in the film, the restoration of a moral order, and the continuing impact on the protagonists.

Taylor Sheridan wrote the screenplays of the acclaimed Scicario and Hell or High Water, and Wind River is of the same calibre. His debut as director, as well as screenwriter, is excellently done, though some characters who seemed to be part of the story drop out during the film, not to be seen again, which makes it seem slightly linear. The locations are stunning, the film fascinating in its portrayal of a certain type of outdoor lifestyle, and its depiction of the Native American community, and the loss of their heritage and traditions, is sympathetic and respectful. It’s a really enjoyable thriller, whose worthy politics show that it’s a labour of love for its creator.

Taylor Sheridan won the Critics’ Prize for Best Direction following Wind River‘s screening in Cannes in May 2017. In acceptance, producer Harvey Goldstein read out Sheridan’s response, which ended: “Lastly I want to thank the tribal council of the northern Arapahoe and eastern Shoshone nations for not only allowing me to tell this story but embracing me and lending me their assistance in every way asked. 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… what we must do as artists is scream about them with fists clenched.”

Wind River premiered at the Sundance Film Festival 2017, screened in the Official Selection of Un Certain Regard at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Best Director award, and is released on 8 September 2017 in the UK.

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