“You’re looking for clues, but you’re missing all the signs,” says Renner’s Cory hired by Wind River Indian Reservation for his tracking skills, to Olsen’s upstart FBI agent Jane. Something in us says Cory will out-FBI Olsen and continue to out-track those living in the reservation until he brings them all closure. The rugged and compelling Cory traverses social and racial boundaries, says ‘we’ and ‘us’ when talking to the impossibly dispossessed, displays the coldness and compassion integral for survivalism, is haunted by his past, tells Native Americans and women what’s what, and threatens to make Wind River feel like last century’s revisionism. Native American Chip rightly calls Cory out when Cory tells Chip to sort his shit out and make something of himself (“the only thing Native about you is your ex-wife”), but this is framed as Hard Truth rather than empathetic muddiness. Defining Wind River by its white saviour narrative is reductive, but we are also aware at every beat who wrote and directed it.
Cory’s place as saviour seems warmly accommodated by the film, but there are places where the film would make more sense dramatically were it not for his inclusion. Did someone insist Sheridan write him in so that this film about a female FBI agent investigating murdered and disappeared Native American women would still feature a white male protagonist? There are other places where Wind River‘s seams show as well. Sheridan paces the film with a relentless kind of ambience which is at once punchy and fearful, but in its most critical moment he goes against this and dissolves its tense immediacy for a show-all flashback. Everywhere else his writing displays a trust that the viewer is keeping up, and indeed anyone paying attention already internalised the horrors of the mystery implied to gut wrenching ends. We cannot criticise it for presenting sexual assault as banal or titillating (as with something like Game of Thrones), but it is still gratuitous. This flashback feels in so many ways tacked on, and is detrimental to all of the film’s pathos over the missing.
Sheridan as a first time director already understands how to articulate his writing cinematically, and crucially understands when style is necessary and when function will suffice. This cannot be said of his dialogue, which when not functional (when it is functional it is excellent) is occasionally so loaded with portent that it is distracting to the majority of the actors. Early on Julia Jones’ Wilma is expected to go from mundane conversation to wall-shaking ellipsis as though that is an easy task, and Graham Green is asked to get there from wryly comic. Olsen is spared from this altogether as she is tasked with simply advancing and reflecting on events, and Renner is fed Carverian and Eastwoodian one-liners to scrunch his expressive potato forehead over. “Out here, you cannot blink, not once, not ever.” “Out here you survive or you surrender.” etc.
I’m not a viewer that laughs at a work’s self-seriousness, but there are scenes in Wind River with a tonal ambiguity that makes it unclear how we are supposed to feel. In one such scene Cory finds Martin (Gil Birmingham) sitting under a tree with his face painted, and Martin says that it is his Death Face. Cory asks him what this means and Martin shrugs and admits that he has no idea what it means. The theatre erupts with laughter. Anyone still laughing a second too long misses Martin adding that in the way of indigenous mourning practices “I don’t know… there’s no one left to teach me.” This line will haunt me for a long time, and I am still undecided whether it was a serious line in a fun scene, or whether the whole scene was meant to be serious. Either way it is a symptom of the whole film being over-written. Similarly Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have likely produced a good record using Wind River as an excuse, but their pieces inserted into the film are over-scored and make the images seem overwrought. An interior scene will end and we are thrust into the white hills, and wincing we feel cold, but then there enter strings and a husky spoken-word performance.
Plastic grime is cinematic candy for me but it should not be used for Wind River‘s subject matter. Luckily Sheridan brings a sincere heavy handedness that bludgeons the viewer’s emotions in the right way. This is important because over and above this plastic grime Ben Richardson’s cameras feel as though they are leering at the houses of Wind River’s inhabitants. While they avoid outright poverty tourism there is still something fetishistic about the way they lap up one particular interior. Richardson really wants us to see graffiti on an internal wall, missing floorboards covered by rugs, and a bin being used inside as a fireplace. He licks his lips at signifiers of drug-addiction and hopelessness. This kind of thing was okay in something like True Detective season one because the interiors belonged to made-up hillbilly cultists, but Wind River is a real place inhabited by real people. Richardson’s work avoids being as cynically awful as something like this, but one wonders whether that comes down to a number of scenes shot inside family homes which the cameras are therefore disinterested in.
The epigraph which reports that the number of murdered and missing Native American women goes unreported by non-tribal authorities (and this after the film dramatises the fact that assault against Native American women tends to be committed by white men and thus sits outside of both tribal and non-tribal jurisdiction) was met with a collective gasp in my theatre briefly interrupting a long stretch of tears. Does it matter that Cory’s inclusion drags Wind River through white saviours and the lows of the well-meaning but retrograde western revisionism of half a century ago? At this point it is obvious that Sheridan has avoided miserablism and created something for all its flaws, provocative if not outright (and necessarily) didactic.