Wind River Review: A Cold Dance of Tension and Cliches

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A strong sense of place can do wonders for a film. Wind River is loaded with problems, but it’s portrait of a desolate Wyoming Indian reservation with winters as long as those in Westeros is endlessly captivating. At one point, Elisabeth Olsen’s character describes the local police department as having a jurisdiction the size of Rhode Island while being staffed with seven people. The very nature of having an occupation up there is even different, which the script wonderfully explores.

We meet our strapping hero, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), as he’s hunting wolves going after locals’ farm animals. He stumbles upon the body of a young woman in the snow, setting in motion a mystery that really only he can solve. He’s given some help by FBI agent Jane Banner (Olsen), but his ability to figure things out working off the land often trumps what I’m sure was a very good and very expensive education for Jane. Wind River opens with a title card claiming “Inspired by True Events,” which feels nullified the second Renner, admittedly quite good, starts displaying his special skills as if this were a wintery, small-town version of Taken. For a low-budget feature such as this, especially from the writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water, Wind River‘s narrative feels incredibly Hollywoodish. Highly tense sequences occur without a lick of relevance to the plot. Cory is given a backstory that forms parallels between the case he’s working on and the case of his own daughter’s death.

And yet, there’s something oddly hypotonic about the film. It’s setting seems so foreign and untraversed in modern cinema, and the detail put into building its world is rich and layered. Cory may feel like a Hollywood hero, but in terms of geography, he feels like he’s on another continent. So the tension works, as does the general arc of the story, factual or not. For his evolution from writer to writer-director, Taylor Sheridan has constructed a wonderfully filmed, though clumsily edited, work of true fiction.

The title cards that close the film don’t really go into detail on the events that the film is supposedly depicting, but they do highlight a real problem worth thinking about involving gender and race. There’s probably too much mansplaining throughout to call Wind River a feminist work, but it’s pretty far away from misogyny too. The fact that it wants to have taken a side and fails to convince is certainly problematic, but it’s hard to be cynical toward a film that’s at least trying. Especially when some aspects of it are so excellently constructed. But still, there’s a hollowness to Wind River, one that comes through in some very old cliches. So while it’s enjoyable and tense, there was always part of me a little taken out of it. To be great cinema, whether political or fairly neutral, that cannot be the case. Grade: B-

By Matt Dougherty

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