At first glance, Wind River seems like nothing but a film about a man killing a predator. That’s how Jeremy Renner’s Cory Lambert starts the story: the first time we see him is just after he shoots a wolf from a distance with a high-powered rifle.
Before the wolf abruptly dies, it menaces a herd of sheep. We know exactly what’s about to happen, and we know why Lambert does what he does: unless it is somehow stopped, the wolf will attack, and it will pick off one of the weaker sheep. Wolves are predators, and this is what they do. You shouldn’t be surprised by the behavior of predators, but you do need to take steps to see they don’t hurt something dear to you.
Taylor Sheridan wrote and directed Wind River. Sheridan made a name for himself as the writer behind Sicario and Hell or High Water, and Wind River bears his distinctive, harsh touch. It’s a murder mystery whose plot revolves around the death of a young Native American woman named Natalie, whose body was found in the frozen wilderness of the Wind River Indian Reservation, miles from any shelter. Lambert knew her, and so joins an investigation led by Elizabeth Olsen’s Jane Banner and Graham Greene’s Tribal Police Chief Ben to find Natalie’s killer. The investigation, from the very beginning, is referred to as a hunt—just a group of trackers finding a predator that needs to be put down.
This is something of a break with modern murder mysteries, as so often in these stories nowadays, the killer is talked about in fearful tones, almost in awe—they’re an evil mastermind, or a uniquely twisted lunatic. As though to carry out these horrible crimes, they could only be some kind of maniacal supervillain. Before seeing Wind River in theaters, you might catch a trailer for The Snowman, a mystery in which a fiendish serial killer in a similarly frozen setting kidnaps women and leaves a calling card of a snowman. Nearly every line in the trailer is about the killer—something cryptic like “he’s playing games with us,” “he’s taunting us,” or “he’s been watching us the whole time.” At one point, Michael Fassbender’s character literally says, with complete sincerity, “he’s completely insane.”
There is no such treatment in Wind River. Natalie didn’t end up sprinting in the snow and freezing to death because of some kind of sinister genius. Her killers, as revealed in a flashback, are perfectly sane, and they act exactly as one expects them to. This doesn’t make what they did any less evil, it merely demonstrates that Sheridan is not trying to shock you with the depths of humanity’s depravity. Sheridan isn’t interested in some mythical genius murderer, he’s interested in the ones that already live among us, the ones whose behavior is easy to predict, and yet still aren’t stopped. Natalie was encircled by wolves, and they did what wolves do.
You shouldn’t be surprised by the behavior of predators.
And yet, the FBI can’t help much in this investigation. Jane Banner is shown from her very first appearance to be completely unprepared, with zero assistance from the Bureau. At every turn, protocol thwarts her, makes her job more and more difficult. The FBI is, from the very beginning, useless. Jane Banner may be helpful, but the FBI itself is absent.
The film’s score uses a kind of wail, almost in the background, as if to remind you that the anguish that occurs in this remote land is muffled off in the distance, away from any mainstream attention. It’s a contrast that is played out multiple times in the film: this land is apart, it is its own, and it is hard. Life expectancy, unemployment and sexual violence all occur with rates similar to third world countries on the Wind River Indian Reservation, a fact exacerbated by the government’s negligent treatment. As Sheridan told Newsweek, “The social issues that Native Americans face are the same as in other parts of the country—domestic abuse, poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism—but on the reservation, no one is watching or listening.”
Even the happier parts of the film find a way to be bleak, as most of the positive dialogue is directed towards Natalie. We are told (and then shown) that Natalie was a strong-willed, vibrant girl. Because of this, there is an (understandable) argument that Wind River is nothing but a male revenge fantasy, that the lovely young girl was only ever fodder for the plot of the righteous man punishing the wicked for their transgressions. And if the film ended with this punishment, that’s exactly what it would be: a film about nothing more than a man shooting and tracking a predator that needed killing.
But that’s not where it ends. The film ends not with Lambert standing over a dead predator, but with Lambert sitting next to Natalie’s father. Watching this ending, with two men thinking about Natalie, one remembers that the film did not actually open on Lambert killing the wolf. The film opened on Natalie running through the snow, as she reads a poem she wrote in voiceover. Jane Banner can’t even have a conversation in the aftermath without breaking down—now knowing exactly how much grit it takes, she can’t say anything but “she ran six miles in the snow.” She says it with awe, with the respect that act deserves. Natalie, not the crime itself and not the vengeance for it, was always the heart of the film.
Wind River wasn’t trying to shock you with the horrific new breed of murderer. It wasn’t trying to awe you with Lambert’s expert shooting as he took out the bad guys. The film was trying to show you how an amazing young woman could die because of mediocre men, and how the FBI doesn’t do shit to help.
Or, as the title card states in the very last frames of the film, “While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women.” In this land, crimes like this are mundane, and as Ben says, they’re on their own.