July 16, 2018
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  • “Wind River” follows a wildlife office and an FBI agent who team up to investigate the assault and murder of a teenage girl on an American Indian reservation.
    Photo courtesy of The Weinstein Company
    “Wind River” follows a wildlife office and an FBI agent who team up to investigate the assault and murder of a teenage girl on an American Indian reservation.

“Wind River” Is A Flawed Masterpiece

Audrey Ruppert
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October 4, 2017

On the surface, “Wind River” appears to be a classic whodunit murder mystery film, but it quickly becomes evident that director Taylor Sheridan has so much more of a story to tell us.

Set on the Wind River Native American reservation, the story centers on Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a white tracker who works for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and helps keep the native cattle safe from predators. Lambert was once married to an Arapaho woman, but they divorced because of the tragic circumstances surrounding the death of their daughter, and share custody of a young, mixed-race child. When Lambert discovers the dead body of a young Arapaho woman who was once his daughter’s friend, the FBI is called, and agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is assigned to the case.

The critical consensus on Wind River has been largely divided. To say that the film is powerful is an understatement — I left the theater in tears, a first for me — but at what cost? Some feel the film is problematic and that the heavy themes it uses are for tasteless shock value. The final statistic that flashes across the screen seems somewhat out of place; we are informed that no statistics are kept on how many Native American women go missing each year, or how many are victims of violence, but the film hardly focuses on a woman’s perspective at all - the dead woman’s story is only revealed through a short flashback. Rather, we are party to the grief of their fathers, of men. Jane Banner, a clueless outsider shipped in from Las Vegas, along with Lambert himself, can easily be painted as savior figures, and the natives as helpless people who only succeed with the help of whites.

While these criticisms are fair, I personally view “Wind River” to be a flawed masterpiece. The title itself and the film poster have an air of cold forlornness, and the story is set across a bitter, freezing, desolate landscape. “Wind River” is the story of a place with little hope. Perhaps a better statistic to have flashed across the screen would have been that of unemployment (high), lifespan (low) and alcoholism (high) on Native American reservations. Lambert remarks to Banner that Natalie, the dead girl, was a fighter, and that no matter how far Banner thinks Natalie must have run in the snow before freezing to death, he could guarantee that she ran even further. “Wind River” seems to tell us that in a land with little hope, some, like Natalie, fight, even if to no avail. Others, like her brother Chip, give in and are lost to drugs or other vices.

The once proud natives who owned America before us have been reduced to their present state of poverty by our ancestors, and the descendants of both bear the consequences, even if neither can remember or are necessarily responsible for what came before. Natalie’s father, Martin, at the end of the film, dons face paint and stares into the wilderness. Upon questioning by Lambert, he says something to the equivalent of, “This is my mourning face.” Lambert asks how he knows this is the mourning face, to which Martin replies that he doesn’t know, for there is no one left to teach him; he just made it up. Then, he asks Lambert, who is always wearing a cowboy hat, to mourn with him, and they stare into the distance together, cowboy and Indian, united in grief.

“Wind River” seems to invite its audience, who is most likely not native, to step into their world and feel their pain, the emptiness left by loved ones who have suffered, the lack of opportunity and the hopelessness that pervades their world, and stand with them. There is no need to have a white-savior complex, but rather, to empathize, and to stand together for the type of social change that is desperately needed. Banner notes that she is “all (the natives) got,” not because natives are helpless, but because the federal government simply does not care about them. The film asks us, the untouched, to care for these seemingly forgotten people, to aid them in their fight.

While flawed, and at times overly symbolic, “Wind River” is well worth the watch; it’s impossible to walk away without a changed perspective.

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