Taylor Sheridan’s latest crime thriller is one of the rare films in mainstream cinema to address the ongoing epidemic of sexual violence on Indian reservations. Set on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, it recounts the rape and death of a young Native American woman Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow), whose body is found frozen in the snow by wildlife officer Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). Lambert’s investment in the case is deeply personal, as his own half-Indian daughter Emily went missing three years ago and likely suffered a similar fate. Sheridan emphasized that while his film does not recreate a specific real-life case, “it is based on thousands of actual stories just like it.” Policy reports by the National Congress of American Indians (NCIA) estimate that Native American women are twice as likely to experience sexual assault as women of any other race and, on some reservations, are murdered at ten times the national average.
The first moments of Wind River convey this inescapable violence in a way that is chilling and unforgettable. Cinematographer Ben Richardson opens with a wide-shot of Natalie fleeing her attacker across the reservation’s frozen tundra, while a poem written by Emily shortly before the night of her disappearance is recited by an anonymous female voice on the soundtrack. The poem’s opening line (“There is a meadow in my perfect world”) is spoken with a serenity that disturbingly contrasts with Natalie’s imminent death, while the final verse (“when I find myself frozen in the mud of the real”) feels terribly prescient, haunting the icy traceless landscape with their disappearances and those of countless other Native women.
We see how easily Natalie’s case might have fallen into oblivion, given the scant resources that are committed to investigating such crimes in Indian country. When Natalie’s body is found, the FBI merely dispatches the agent closest to the scene: the inexperienced and ill-equipped Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen). Ignorant of the reservation’s extreme weather conditions, she arrives wearing an absurdly lightweight jacket that prompts the local police chief (Graham Greene) to tell her she’ll “be dead in five minutes if she walks up the mountain in that.” He is wryly amused when she requests reinforcements, quipping, “This isn’t the land of back-up, Jane. Out here, you’re on your own.” His words are echoed in Richardson’s winding long shots of the barren tundra, which engulf us in the reservation’s frozen sea of bleakness.
In its best moments, Wind River is impactful and unassumingly poetic. Most critics consider it Sheridan’s third achievement in balancing crime drama and social critique – the first two being his screenplays for Sicario (2015) and Hell or High Water (2016). The screenwriter-turned-director would have been better off, however, if he’d stuck exclusively to the slow-burning drama for which he is known. He certainly could have done without the 10-man Mexican standoff between the reservation police and oil workers. Lambert’s final confrontation with Natalie’s assailant also felt contrived – riddled with rehearsed insights about the incurable isolation of the frontier.
Wind River’s other weakness lies in its lack of focus on its Native American characters, especially since it’s addressing an issue specific to their communities. Natalie’s parents, and even the tribal police chief, increasingly recede into the background as Lambert and Banner work to track down and punish Natalie’s assailant. Sheridan would have done well to include more scenes of Natalie’s mother and Lambert’s Native American wife (Julia Jones) and to build on the conversations between Lambert and Natalie’s father (Gil Birmingham), which make for some of the film’s most poignant moments. Another worthwhile consideration is how the script might have been crafted around a Native American protagonist rather than Jeremy Renner, despite the latter’s strong performance.
Though it lacks the artistry of a masterpiece, Wind River should be given due attention as one of this year’s most politically important films – capable of generating a necessary nationwide conversation about sexual violence and the role of the federal government in providing greater protections for indigenous women. “Before we can address and end any injustice, we must first acknowledge the injustices,” said the chair of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, Cherrah Giles, during the February Senate briefings that coincided with efforts to designate a National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Native Women and Girls. Reminding us that Native women are the only demographic in the U.S. for which missing person statistics are not kept, Wind River’s epilogue contains a haunted admission: No one knows how many are missing.