Review Date: 4/3/2018
Rating: 3/5 Peanuts
In a Nutshell:
Despite stellar acting from the entire cast, this decidedly dark tale of a murder mystery on an Indian Reservation tries to be many things while actually doing surprisingly little.
I wanted to like this film. When watching the trailer it checked all the boxes for me in a way that few non-franchise trailers do. It seemed to have everything: a great cast, a compelling story, suspense, great cinematography, and a subject matter that was interesting and largely under-told. So it was to great disappointment that I sat down and actually watched Wind River. To be sure, some of what the trailer promised was delivered.
The entire cast, from leading roles down to minor supporting characters all delivered in spades. The dialogue was excellent, the characters felt real and their emotions (especially grief - more on that in a moment) were palpable and raw. It felt honest, more than anything else. The always great Jeremy Renner reunites with his Avengers co-star Elizabeth Olsen and their on screen relationship was fantastic. Renner's park ranger / wolf hunter character, a white man largely ingrained within the Reservation community is a man of long silences who wears his grief over his late daughter like a millstone around his neck is magnetic. Here he plays the role of the world-wise guide to Olsen's fish out of water FBI agent, a Las Vegas based Florida native who finds herself in a frozen land of crushing winter. For her own contribution, Olsen plays the young and semi-idealistic new agent character well, toeing the line between overeager book smarts without actually crossing over into naive incompetence.
The supporting cast, as I said, also does a fantastic job. Given that it takes place on the Wind River Indian reservation, much of the cast members are Native Americans. As such, anyone familiar with contemporary Westerns will recognize a few faces, such as the ever talented Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal, whom people may recognize from Netflix's Godless. Together with Gil Birmingham, the father of another lost daughter, they help present the face of loss that is all too common among Native American communities. There are other supporting characters as well, all played well, but they are too numerous to mention specifically. Suffice it to say there is no lack of acting chops in the film.
Though I imagine others will disagree, neither Renner nor Olsen fall into the trap of playing the white savior trope. Renner seems to have earned his place within the community, an outsider to be sure, but only by degrees. Olsen's character no doubt serves as the audience's viewpoint into the unfamiliar community of the reservation as well as the harsh realities of the frozen wild. However, she genuinely wants to help, not because the people there are incapable of helping themselves, but because it is both her job and the right thing to do. Her frustrations arise not from the local populace so much as the bureaucracy imposed upon them by her own employer.
So with a great cast, great acting, beautiful cinematography as well as a simple, if not exactly compelling, plot, where does this film fall short? Two major places. First, the film tries to be too many things. Is it a fish out of water story? Only for about the first half, and the resolution there is hardly earned. Is it a murder mystery? Yes, but the mystery is solved through a flashback rather than through any real detective work. Is it a story about the oppression of Native Americans by White Americans? Surprisingly, not. While it is true that the crime itself is perpetrated by White Men on a Native American woman, I found that the crime itself was surprisingly absent of racial motivations. This woman could just as easily have been White and the crime, the cover up and the resolution all would have remained unchanged. So is this a story about rape and Man on Woman crime? Sort of, but the instigating indecent is so chaotic that it almost comes across as a byproduct of evil men left to their own devices more than anything else. There is a degree of senselessness in this movie that leaves you raw.
So if the film is not really about anything I just outlined, what is it actually about? It seems to me that the film is about grief: both what causes it and how do we deal with it. There is a crushingly somber tone to the film. Everyone is sad because tragedy has touched everyone in the film. And yet there is surprisingly little exploration of that theme. Renner's character is dealing with the grief of his lost daughter in a (probably) unrelated incident from years before. He imparts some hard learned wisdom on his friend and former brother in law who is now dealing with the present murder of his own daughter, and yet there is very little exploration of grief there as well. We are shown the grief of Renner's brother and sister in law, but they themselves do not deal with it. Renner's pursuit of the perpetrators is obviously partially motivated by a desire for catharsis for his own lost daughter, but he never actually acknowledges this.
So if trying to be too many things is the film's first problem, what is the second? In my mind, the film actually doesn't do that much. The story itself is a fairly straight forward murder mystery. A girl is found dead and Renner, Olsen and Greene must work together to discover the cause. Unsurprisingly, the cause is a group of white men. Men, in this case, is perhaps too good a term for them as it is eventually revealed just how terrible they are, and how heinously senseless their crime. During the flashback showing the murder itself I found myself muttering "savages" out loud to my empty living room without realizing it at first. For real, these are bad dudes, and when you see the scene in question you will be left dazed. But all in all, not very much happens. There are very few clues, no real leads, and ultimately, they discover the trail of the bad guys by... literally discovering the trail they left in the snow. If you're not really going to be a film with a clear theme then you at least have to have a good plot, and unfortunately the film lacks anything but the barest skeleton of one.
So in the end, should you see Wind River? I think it is a window into a world that White America sees all too little of, and by that merit alone it is worth seeing. Sure, if you're a fan of any of the cast, or simply want to see some beautiful cinematography it's worth a watch as well - just make sure you bring your tissues with you.