Wind River

A young woman is found dead on an Indian reservation in Wyoming. Her bare feet are badly frostbitten and her lungs have burst from inhaling freezing air. She must have been running – but from what or whom, and why?

I wanted to see this movie because it was written by the same man who wrote Sicario, Taylor Sheridan. For the benefit of those who didn’t see it or have forgotten, Sicario was about an idealistic FBI agent co-opted into a cynical, secretive operation against a nasty Mexican drug lord. It was tightly plotted and deliciously thrilling, despite the cliche of the FBI agent being young, attractive and female. (Hollywood’s forever going on about inclusive casting but so far it doesn’t extend to having plain old women in leading roles.)

Here the FBI agent is once again young, idealistic, female and attractive. She’s played by Elisabeth Olsen. Her co-star is the equally attractive Jeremy Renner, who plays Cory, a huntin’ shootin’ fishin’ Wildlife Officer whose day job is killing native animals like wolves and mountain lions. This being America, he is not thereby disqualified from being a sympathetic character, nor by letting his young son handle high-powered firearms.

Far from it: he’s a SNAG who’s married into the native American community and knows how to give a man-hug and a lofty-sounding speech when required. He does both when he visits the native American father of the dead girl, and we learn that Cory too had a daughter who went missing in similar sinister circumstances on the reservation a few years earlier. That’s why he agrees to help out the rookie FBI agent who’s struggling a bit with the tangled jurisdictional bureaucracy of the reservation, not to mention the inclement weather.

Why didn’t I like Wind River as much as Sicario? Yes, it’s a good story and the Indian reservation setting adds interest to the cultural and procedural aspects of the plot. It also makes for great cinematography, with Sicario-like aerial footage of a fast-moving convoy of powerful vehicles making their way through a dramatic landscape to a rendezvous with the forces of evil.

But…well, for a start the language bothered me. It’s one of those movies where a solemn voiceover – in this case female – intones something haunting and poetic over the initial scenes, but because at that stage you don’t know the context of what you’re seeing, by the time you do you’ve forgotten what was said and any relevance to the plot is lost. For another thing, the dialogue is frequently incomprehensible. The characters mumble, as people do in real life, and they aren’t always looking at the camera when they speak. This naturalism at all costs is fine in principle, but it’s frustrating for the viewer/listener, and it’s all too prevalent in movies – and TV – these days.

When we CAN understand what’s being said, such as when Cory opens up about the loss of his daughter to the lady cop, he sounds implausibly eloquent and high-falutin’ for a humble gunslinger. And why the hand-held camerawork in this crucial indoor scene? It’s irritatingly jumpy, and for no good reason.

And bugger it, I’m going to air another petty grievance about this scene. He’s invited her into his humble shack for a ‘drink’, which is when she spots the photos and memorabilia that prompt his revelations about the family tragedy. But the shared drink is a glass of tap water! I mean really. It’s effing freezing outside, it’s the end of a working day, they’ve faced many dangers together; surely they can have a wee dram of something a little stronger, especially if he’s going to unburden about this grave emotional blow. Aren’t goodies allowed any alcohol at all in Hollywood movies these days?

The story purports to be ‘inspired by true events’, according to a text super at the start. At the end, another super declares that ‘no one knows how many are missing.’ Are they referring to alcohol-fuelled sexual violence against young women in indigenous communities? If so, the tone of some of the action doesn’t sit well with the serious subject.

At one point there’s a Mexican stand-off involving the FBI lady, the wildlife bloke, local tribal police (all goodies) and armed security guards working for the local mining company, who are of course the baddies. There are about a dozen people all up, and every single one of them has a gun. It’s almost comical. It looks like something Tarantino might dream up, except that it ends in a classic cliched Hollywood shoot ‘em up where the baddies are all rotten shots. My movie-going companion said it reminded her more of the Coen brothers, but I reckon they wouldn’t make the mistake of injecting that quirky tone into a story about nasty violence against indigenous women. Still, it had its moments. Meh.

This review was first published on Facebook in August 2017