Wind River

A Film Review by
Justin Eagle Gauthier wind river poster

A haunting poem is read behind the imagery of a bloodied young woman running barefoot and underdressed through the snow. She looks back and the moonlight reflected off the snow illuminates her terror. We have no idea why she flees but we know it’s a matter of life and death.

For more than a century Hollywood has produced movies that address the cause célèbre of the day. Be it kidnappings, serial murderers, AIDS, civil rights, or any other issue that captures the imagination of the public. In other cases, the silver screen has also been used to draw attention to an ignored topic or group.

Director Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River is a feature length crime thriller/drama that addresses the epidemic of murdered and missing Native American women. Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a grizzled hunter/tracker for the Wyoming Fish and Wildlife Service. Lambert is established early as a hunter capable of taking life. We also learn he is divorced from a Native American woman with whom he has a young son. His ex-wife, Wilma, played with harrowing restraint by Julia Jones hints at an incident from the past that caused a rift between the couple before she sends her son with Lambert to the reservation. Sheridan enforces the idea that Cory Lambert is a good guy through scenes of him being a good father, a good ex-son-in-law, a dedicated employee, and finally a man capable of expressing emotion when he discovers the frozen body of the aforementioned Native American woman in a remote location.

Wind River is Sheridan’s follow up project to his Oscar nomination as writer of the film Hell or High Water. In that prior film, Sheridan revealed a fascination with Native American culture through his main character’s wish to be a “lord of the plains”. He also included some off-color jokes from Jeff Bridge’s character as a recalcitrant Texas Ranger poking fun at his half Native American partner played by Gil Birmingham. These racist jabs served a larger purpose in establishing Bridges character as of the old school and solidifying his connection to his partner, this work in the script laid emotional groundwork for his act of vengeance in the third act.
This dichotomy of reverence and gentle racism plays out in a very different way in Wind River. One gets the feeling that Sheridan is attempting to address a larger issue by focusing his film on the plight of missing and murdered Native American women. At the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Sheridan was quoted as saying:

“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. 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.”
This is a fine sentiment. In getting Wind River produced and released into theaters across the nation, Taylor Sheridan has done much toward amplifying his message. He also provided high profile jobs for indigenous actors. These are all good things and I’m glad to see an issue as grave as this being presented to the public.

The film, unfortunately, is just another repackaging of the Hollywood formula of a white savior. It’s more deeply affecting for audiences because Renner’s character is cast not only as the savior but also as the healer. He is competent, wise, and likeable while the native characters are portrayed as being in emotional free fall, entrenched in identity crisis to the point of inaction, or self-serious to the point of it being played for light comedic effect.

Aside from my critical take, Wind River is a good movie. The production values and cinematography are top-notch. The acting is laudable. Hopefully the success of this film will lead to policy action against the murder of indigenous women. It’s also my hope it will lead to opportunities for indigenous filmmakers to garner some of the same international attention and wide theater releases that Taylor Sheridan and other non-native directors enjoy for telling our stories.

Menominee Tribal member Justin Eagle Gauthier has been featured in several literary journals. He is currently enrolled in the LoRez MFA program in creative writing studying screenwriting at the Institute of American Indian Arts.