Wind River and all the images you see in this review are owned by The Weinstein Company
Directed by Taylor Sheridan
It’s always fun to go into a movie COMPLETELY blind; knowing nothing more than the title and MAYBE a poster. While I would never decry trailers which in and of themselves can sometimes be MORE entertaining than the movie their advertising (*cough* Suicide Squad *cough*), they invariable lead to expectations which can be either a good or bad thing for the finished product. This is one that I went in without knowing the slightest bit about it aside from Jeremey Renner’s face and cowboy hat being front and center, so hey! How bad could it be!? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins in the harsh wildness that is Northern Wyoming where we follow Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) who’s a US Fish and Wildlife Service agent that serves the Wind River Indian Reservation. During his regular duties of hunting predators in the snot freezing cold, he comes across the body of a local girl named Natalie (Kelsey Chow) who not only froze to death in the snow but seems to have been raped as well. With the help of the local sheriff Ben (Graham Greene) and a rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) the three of them try to do what they can to find out what really happened to the girl and to bring her parents Martin and Annie (Gil Burmingham Annie Hanson) at least some degree of closure. Of course Cory, being a hunter, might have other plans that Jane or even Ben wouldn’t be aware of. Will Cory find the person responsible for the death of Natalie, and does he have a personal connection to this case that could be clouding his judgement? Will Jane survive in this harsh world long enough to realize how much she still needs to learn? Wait, why are we focusing on these two? Something seems a bit off about that…
I don’t freaking get it. I feel like I’ve somehow become Mark Baum in The Big Short where he slowly starts realize the madness around him as the world starts to crumble. Everything I once thought was true is being contradicted by what I see in front of me and the way that people are acting which either means that this job has finally caused me to lose it, or everyone else is just passing me by and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. To put it more bluntly (and meme-y) I FEEL LIKE I’M TAKING CRAZY PILLS!! How is this movie getting so many spectacular reviews when what I saw on screen was utter garbage? Was I wearing those Dead Alive sunglasses without even knowing!? Has the world been invaded by Pod People right under my nose!? Make no mistake; I REALLY didn’t like this movie. Maybe not as bad as other failed prestige films like Secret in Their Eyes, but this is a top to bottom disaster that I was not prepared to see this year outside of MAYBE Tulip Fever which has been kicking around for three years and looks like a FANTASTIC mess. Whenever I feel this strongly about a movie, I’m always nervous that I simply missed something vital that would explain just how wrong I am about it, but while the overwhelmingly positive reception is doing nothing to dissuade that anxiety, I just can’t see what it could possibly have been. Okay, MAYBE that’s a bit too far because my biggest problem with this movie is just how hard it FAILS at what it tries to be, and maybe people are seeing it for what the filmmakers had intended. I don’t see how you COULD though considering how obviously it misunderstands the subject matter it’s supposedly about, and even the good qualities that I will absolutely cop too are simply not good enough to compensate for all the film’s failings. I’m just flailing here trying to figure out if I really am one of the few critics out there that sees this movie for what it truly is, or if I’m just a raving asshole who has no idea what he’s talking about; the latter being a theory I would NOT dismiss lightly.
So what is this movie trying to be and how does it fail to do that? The closest comparison that comes to my mid at least would be The Whistleblower from 2010 starring Rachel Weisz and was about sex trafficking in Europe. For the most part, that movie was less about recreating a story that actually happened (even though Rachel Weisz’s character was based on a real person) and more about creating a taut thriller in an environment that’s all the more horrifying once you realize how little of it is made up. To that end, this movie does a decent job of that… at least on the surface. To a certain extent I am aware of how fucked up things are on Native American Reservations, but I’m also aware of how little I truly understand of what life is in some of these places and this movie does a great job of portraying that through its use of the setting. Not only that, but the film manages to be incredibly beautiful at points (if you set your movie in Winter, I’ll automatically knock it up a point) and there’s even a REALLY solid action scene at the very end that may not be enough to satisfy those looking for something viscerally intense, but does punctuate the drama of the third act quite well. It’s a film where all the pieces were there, from the basic outline of the story to the locations and cinematography, and while I can appreciate those parts in isolation they sadly have to occupy the same space of one of the more problematic films I’ve seen in a while.
So here’s where I lay all my cards on the table and admit that I’m far from the first person to ask when it comes to the issues I’m about to discuss. I never claim to be an expert and am merely trying to convey my thoughts on the movie in as constructive a way as possible which is not an easy task considering the complicated nature of this film. If you don’t agree with what I have to say, well then let me know where I screwed up or let me know if someone else has already explained this movie’s problems better than I did. We good? Alright then! THIS MOVIE IS THE GOD DAMN POSTER CHILD OF BEING A TERRIBLE ALLY! What do I mean by that? Well the movie at least has noble ambitions by trying to shine a spotlight on the unfair treatment that nearly all Native Americans are forced to face when they’re still trying to pick up the pieces of a society that was utterly and mercilessly destroyed by white settlers and then screwed over time and time again by the US Government. The problems in these communities with drugs and steady employment didn’t just spring up out of nowhere and making a movie in that is set in that world and confronts it head on is something I don’t ever recall seeing in a film before. That’s all fine, but why the fuck did they frame THIS story about a VERY specific group of people around a white dude who’s the embodiment of masculine perfection and a white woman who’s only on hand to get shit on constantly? This movie about Native Americans is written and directed by a white guy, stars white people, and is only about Native Americans whenever something shitty has to happen; especially when it comes to Native American women. This is the same problem that a lot of people have with shows like Orange is the New Black where women of color (including Trans women of color though that should be assumed when mentioning women of color) are only given strong roles and interesting characters as long as it’s in the context of their suffering which is absolutely the case here as the Native American actors are great in their roles, but they pretty much all a variation of BROKEN BY THE INEXORABLE FORCE OF LIFE and don’t get to have even the slightest bit of movie star charisma that’s afforded to square jawed, hat wearing, Jeremey Renner and to a lesser extent the earnest but tough newbie on the force Elizabeth Olsen. Seriously, we don’t see Native Americans as the leading actors in Rom-Coms or super hero movies (even with Jason Momoa as Aquaman who we’re still waiting to see how well his character is handled in Justice League), but if you’ve got a story about how much it SUCKS to be them, then the casting calls come a flowing! That, or Adam Sandler wants to tell offensive jokes right to their faces which is admittedly WORSE than the kind of roles they have in this movie, but it feels incredibly gross that the movie with the most Native American actors in I don’t know how long has them casts as victims of horrific crimes, family members of victims of horrific crime that Jeremy Renner will help by killing dudes, or dudes that Jeremy Renner has to beat the shit out of. Oh, and also one cop played by Graham Greene who’s admittedly pretty great in the movie but also feels secondary to the two white leads.
It’s a white savior movie in the most blunt way possible and its almost IMPRESSIVE just how tone deaf it all is. Jeremey Renner is COMPLETELY above reproach or scrutiny throughout the entire film; never doing anything wrong and only getting hurt in ways that solidify his preconceived notions and reinforces in the audience’s mind just how right he is about everything. This film was written and directed by the same guy who wrote Sicario which is kind of baffling considering how much better THAT movie approached its iffy subject matter in regards to the drug war and the American government’s role in it. The movie was COMPLETELY about moral ambiguity which meant that there’s never a point where a character is framed as the CORRECT person which allows for nuance and complexity in regards to the actions that everyone takes. There’s nothing like that here though because Jeremey Renner is not a character. He’s the manifesto of this film writ large; a caricature of how the filmmakers seem to see themselves as they were making this movie. Okay, MAYBE I’m over exaggerating a bit there, but I can’t help but draw a connection between a film that is problematically shoving its Native American characters to the background and a main character who is talking over them throughout.
I haven’t even gotten to the misogyny against both professional women who the film feels the need to tear down utterly (nothing more threatening I guess than a women in charge) and Native American women who the film has absolutely no use for other than as blood stained bodies, inconsolable victims of loss, and angelic figures put on a pedestal to justify acts of ultra violence and frontier justice. Elizabeth Olsen is mocked throughout the film, and not just by the characters. The camera itself and the framing try to constantly tear her down a notch which becomes COMPLICATED due to the fact that she doubles as a representation for the Federal Government (she’s the only FBI agent on hand), but there’s a fine line between Native Americans telling her to fuck off for trying to swoop in and fix all their problems (that’s apparently Jeremey Renner’s job!) and the character being shamed for not knowing how to dress in subzero temperatures and not being able to drive her car well in a snow. Women drivers, AM I RIGHT!? There’s also the even muddier issue of police brutality and the flaunting of proper legal procedures that I can PROBABLY have looked past in a something much less concerned with realism, but the movie is just too damn self-serious and assured of its own moral superiority that I can’t help but call them to task for the way they POSITIVELY (or at least uncritically) portray some pretty despicable acts; the worst of which being when the sheriff let’s someone who is CLEARLY alive just suffer to death when they could have called an ambulance. Apparently if you’re a drug user, you’ve lost the right to medical care! It’s not that I don’t buy that ANY of this can happen and probably DOES happen on a regular basis (police doing terrible things, men not trusting women in power, Native American women being victimized, etc), but the framing in this movie is simply wrong for this kind of material. They’re not lending a voice to those who are suffering; they’re using them to add prestige points to a movie that without them wouldn’t have been even the slightest bit noteworthy.
Look, it’s very likely that I have no idea what I’m talking about and that by taking time out to rant so long about one of the few movies out there that prominently stars Native Americans, I could be doing more harm than good. I’m not an expert on the nuances of representation; I can really only tell you how I reacted to the movie as I saw it and I found this movie hard to take seriously when so much of what it was trying to say was undercut by how it was saying it. For me, there’s really no reason to even bother with it and I’d say skip it all together. If you DO have an interest though, it might be worth checking out at a theater just for how pretty everything looks and it’s also not a particularly long film so you won’t be suffering through it for too long if you come to the same conclusions that I did. There are so many better films out there that are like this that you should watch instead, like Sicario. Movies starring an overwhelmingly Native American cast though? Well you’ve got me there and that’s certainly something I should TRY to improve on. I’m supposedly a film critic, yet I can’t name one Native American director, a prominent First Nations actor outside of say Graham Greene, Cree Summer, and Benjamin Bratt (no, I haven’t seen Dances with Wolves or The Last of the Mohicans), or even a movie off the top of my head where they aren’t secondary to the white protagonists except for Apocalypto. CLEARLY I’m not the most qualified person to be talking about this subject and I hope I’m not the only one you’re listening to, but if there’s ONE thing I’m reasonably sure of, it’s that this movie is not without some SEVERELY problematic issues that may or may not ruin your ability to enjoy this movie. It did for me, but I’m fairly certain that by now you’re all aware I’m not the authority on this subject. In fact, why are you listening to me at all? WHY ARE YOU READING THIS IN THE FIRST PLACE!?