Wind River is one of the rare films in American cinema to address the problem of sexual violence on Indian reservations and the federal government’s stark indifference to it. Its story of the rape and disappearance of a young Native American woman Natalie (Kelsey Chow) on Wind River Reservation is symbolic of a much larger epidemic that prompted the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC) to sponsor a briefing before Congress in February about efforts to address the high rates of sexual assault and missing persons cases among Native American women and girls. One of the main points emphasized in the briefing was that nearly every Native American family has a story of a female relative who is missing or murdered, or whose murder remains unsolved.
This tragic reality is captured in Wind River, as Natalie’s body is discovered by wildlife officer Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), whose daughter Emily went missing three years ago under similar circumstances. Her case was never solved, but the film implies that she too was fleeing some attacker when she froze to death in the snow. This is particularly felt in Wind River’s opening sequence, as Natalie races terrified across the tundra and we hear Emily on the soundtrack reciting a poem she’d written shortly before the night of her disappearance. During these first few minutes, moreover, we do not yet know the identities of this voice and frightened figure, making the film echo all the more chillingly with the anonymous numbers of women that have gone missing on reservations.
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 Wind River’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 cinematographer Ben 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 possesses an unassuming poetry. Most critics consider it Taylor Sheridan’s third achievement in balancing crime drama and social critique – the first two being his screenplays for Sicario and Hell or High Water. The screenwriter-turned-director would have been better off, however, if he’d departed from the thriller mode of his previous scripts and stuck more closely to Wind River’s uniquely meditative pace. He could have easily done without the 10-man Mexican standoff between the reservation police and oil workers outside the trailer where Natalie was raped – which felt like little more than a heavy-handed homage to Tarantino. Lambert’s final confrontation with Natalie’s assailant also felt oddly contrived – the dialogue 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 the film’s two white heroes, 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 build on the conversations between Lambert and Natalie’s father (Gil Birmingham), which make for some of the most memorable and resonant moments in the film. 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 race, sexual violence, and the role of the U.S. government in protecting women on Indian reservations. “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.