Sunday, January 07, 2018

"Wind River": review

[NB: some spoilers.]

"Wind River" is a 2017 crime drama starring Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen (yes: Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch from "The Avengers: Age of Ultron"), Gil Birmingham (the ill-fated Alberto Parker in "Hell or High Water"), and Graham Greene (Kicking Bird from "Dances with Wolves"). The film is written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote the screenplays for "Sicario" and "Hell or High Water." Some critics have called "Wind River" a mystery-thriller, but I disagree mainly because of how the movie "solves" the mystery for the audience through a flashback sequence that spells everything out.

The story begins with a young woman's voiceover as she recites a poem. As we hear this voiceover, we see a bloodied young woman (presumably the same person) running desperately, barefoot, through the nighttime snow of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. She trips and falls; she gets up and runs again, but eventually she collapses and can run no more. The following day, US Fish and Wildlife tracker Cory Lambert (Renner), fresh from shooting a coyote that had been killing local farm animals, finds the girl's body in the snow and calls the incident in. The local sheriff, Ben (Greene), shows up, and eventually an FBI agent named Jane Banner (Olsen) is sent from Nevada. The coroner says the immediate cause of death is pulmonary hemorrhage: breathing fast in subzero weather can cause ice crystals to form in the lungs, puncturing the alveoli and causing the victim to cough up, and eventually drown in, her own blood. The girl, a Native American named Natalie Hanson, had been beaten and raped before she took off running, and she had gone six miles before her final collapse—an impressive feat for a barefoot eighteen-year-old. Agent Banner, who is young and decidedly not a tracker, recruits Lambert to help her. We find out that Lambert is still grieving over the loss of his own teenaged daughter in spookily similar circumstances, and that this is what motivates him to find out who had attacked Natalie. Lambert is also separated from his Arapaho wife, but he shares custody of their son Casey (Teo Briones).

Agent Banner is confused as to why Natalie's parents would be so neglectful as to allow her to roam around so freely. Along with Cory, she visits the home of Martin Hanson (Birmingham), Natalie's Native American father. Martin is stony toward Banner, but he's best friends with Lambert, and he breaks down and cries over the loss of his daughter, fully aware of Lambert's own loss. Martin despairs of his family's situation: his wife has resorted to cutting herself out of depression, and his twenty-something son is selling drugs and living a criminal lifestyle with some other local gangbangers. Life on the reservation is also a crushing reality: the Arapaho were originally nomads who moved away from the area whenever winter struck, but now, they are unable to do so. Life is one long song of bitterness for Martin and his people. Martin does want one thing, though: revenge against whoever killed Natalie.

Everyone—from the local police to the coroner to Cory—knows that Natalie Hanson had essentially been murdered, but the coroner is unable to enter "homicide" as the cause of death because, technically, the most proximate cause of death was the aforementioned pulmonary hemorrhage. This vexes Agent Banner, who is unable to call in more FBI agents as long as this incident is not classified as a murder.

That's the setup for the rest of the story, and it's a good one. Despite its mostly quiet tone and pacing, "Wind River" is emotionally engaging—more of a character study than a plot-driven movie. There is a plot, and it does involve the mystery of who exactly beat and raped the girl, but as I mentioned above, the movie solves the mystery for the audience through a flashback in which we see the events that led to Natalie's desperate run into the snow. That is, perhaps, the only truly disappointing aspect of this film, which could easily have played out like Murder on the Orient Express (if you remember how Agatha Christie's novel ends, then you have a clue as to who assaulted Natalie Hanson) had the flashback been left out.

I assume, therefore, that the point of "Wind River" isn't the solving of a mystery, given how the movie freely gives the mystery away. No, the point of this movie—which is supposedly based on true stories from the American Indian population—is to illustrate the plight of a people, especially that of the young women who go missing every year. Disturbingly, a title card at the end of the film tells us that, while statistics for missing women are kept elsewhere in US records, there are no such statistics for Native American women.

This is a soulful movie. The actors all do a fine job of projecting the pain their characters feel. Jeremy Renner is excellent portraying a professional tracker and father who, despite having lost one child, must still be a dad to another. Gil Birmingham gives an award-winning performance as Martin Hanson, a man caught in the mire of depression, bereavement, and vengefulness. Elizabeth Olsen is believable as an FBI agent out of her element, but imbued with enough toughness and common sense to navigate her way through trouble. All told, "Wind River" is a surprisingly good film that is very much worth your while. There's a sadness to it that cuts deep, but by the end there are also hints of something uplifting, especially for anyone who has suffered his or her own bereavement.

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