Wind River is the second film to be directed by Taylor Sheridan and the third in a neo-western trilogy, following Sicario, directed by Denis Villeneuve, and Hell or High Water, which was both written and directed by Sheridan himself. This time around, Sheridan taps into the movement towards snow westerns that has occurred in recent years, as directors have found themselves yearning for expansive visions of the American heartland but sceptical of the warm desert palettes of the classical western and what they stand for as well. Given how spectacularly this tendency culminated with both The Revenant and The Hateful Eight, there’s already something a bit belated about Wind River, although that sits quite nicely alongside Sheridan’s worldview, which tends to involve characters arriving on the scene just a little too late to make a significant difference. It also imbues the film with a certain marginal, minor quality that often recalls the self-conscious smallness of 90s indie cinema, especially 90s indie releases that took place against regional American backdrops.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the way in which Sheridan establishes the backdrop of the film, since while Wind River may be set in Wyoming – one of the most hallowed states for westerns – it’s set in a part of Wyoming that we never see in westerns, and at a time of year that we rarely see in those westerns set in Wyoming either. Taking place on the Wind River Indian Reservation in the midst of a massive blizzard, the plot revolves around a young girl’s body that is discovered in the middle of an ice field, miles away from the nearest settlement. There’s no direct evidence of foul play, but the location of the body is suspicious, while the autopsy reveals that the state of her lungs suggests that she had run a considerable distance in the cold before asphyxiating and freezing from the inside out. What ensues plays as a procedural thriller in which procedure itself is what is at stake, as Sheridan outlines a number of parties who bring their skills to bear upon discerning what happened.
At the heart of that outfit is Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a tracker with the National Fish and Wildlife Service who first discovers the body and is called upon to analyse the tracks in the area to try and develop some kind of narrative around how this young girl arrived here in the first place. Joining him is Ben (Graham Greene), the leader of the Tribal Police in charge of administering the reservation and, eventually, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), an FBI agent deployed from Las Vegas, which happens to be the nearest centre of operations to Wind River. As might be expected, much of the film revolves around competing forms of knowledge – clues versus signs – with each of the three specialists taking the others through their craft and trying to find some kind of balance between their different skill sets. That’s not exactly to say that the atmosphere is ever fractious or conflicted between them, but there’s a perennial sense that they are never quite on the same plane, or looking at the case from the same angle, partly because the two residents of Wyoming the crime is inevitably mediated through the local landscape and its flora and fauna in ways that it simply never can be for Jane, with the result that introducing her to their procedural approach often means introducing her to the reservation and its rhythms and moods in the same breath.
That makes for an extremely evocative depiction of the finitude of man in the face of nature, since in this kind of environment, and with only one FBI agent, it’s only a matter of time before the weather obscures any hope of cracking the case. As both Cory and Ben remind Jane, snowstorms come in waves – blizzard, calm, blizzard – and given how much of the case depends upon traces left in the snow there’s only a limited window within which the three can hope to figure out what has happened. In a more pointed way than most procedural thrillers, then, Wind River is as much about the spectacle of evidence slipping away as the analysis of evidence itself, with various tracks and clues along the way suggesting an extended version of the narrative that we never quite glimpse. Even the process of gathering evidence is framed negatively, as a way of minimising how much evidence is lost, while the conclusion happens quite suddenly, and partly through flashback, as if to dissociate us from any smooth or seamless transition from data to denouement, with the three main characters finally and inchoately sensing the culprits more than deducing them in any regular manner.
Within the trio, Cory plays the role of mediating between the Tribal Police and the FBI, and between Western and Indian ways of conceiving of crime, to the point where he is effectively presented as mixed race, especially given that his (estranged) wife is Indian and grew up on the reservation. Yet it’s here that the film felt a bit off to me, with Cory assuming his identification with the Indians just a little too blithely, regularly referring to himself and the reservation as “we” despite the fact that he doesn’t have a single drop of Indian blood in his body. As the film proceeds, it gets a bit tiresome to hear him continually invoke “my family’s people,” especially since all the scaffolding that connected him to the Indian community in the first act – his relationship with his wife, his relationship with his wife’s family, the tragedy that drove them apart – more or less falls away by the end, and only really feels as if it was there in the first place to authenticate a film about the Indian community that nevertheless takes a white man as its spokesperson. As some critics have noted, it does really beg the question of why Wind River has a white protagonist in the first place, or even whether this is really Sheridan’s story to tell, since for all the indie trappings, and all the wintry Wyoming revisionism, the vision of Indians on display here is sometimes not all that different from that of a more classical western, at least in the ways that Cory speaks on behalf of them, especially in his quieter and more intimate encounters with Jane.
If anything offsets that it’s probably Elizabeth Olsen’s performance, along with the way in which Sheridan writes her character. In a more conventional film of this kind, you might expect to see a figure like Cory building a solid connection between local and outside law enforcement, but to its credit the film never domesticates his rapport with Jane, while the film doesn’t allow Jane enough time to ever fully acclimatise to Wind River either, with the abbreviated ending proving critical in preventing Olsen ever quite settling into the role. The closest we come is one pivotal scene between Cory and Jane in Cory’s house – one of the few times they are alone together – when he spontaneously discloses his back story to her, and explains how it has contoured his perception of this particular case. At first it seems as if this might catalyse some kind of deeper connection between them, and yet it never flowers into the full-blown procedural romance that might be expected, even if it does add a new dimension to their working relationship. That refusal to domesticate Cory and Jane’s rapport – even or especially in his own house – precludes Cory’s effort to domesticate the Indian population to Jane in turn, to the point where their relationship gradually estranges him from his putative “roots,” rather than reinforcing him as spokesperson for the reservation.
The result is a pervasive melancholy that feels quite indebted to the indie 90s, whose directors often thwarted the direct address of Hollywood with films about missed opportunities, incomplete trajectories and frustrated exchanges. Here, too, the effect is one of communicative dispersal, as the three main investigators only occupy the same place for the briefest amount of time, and enjoy only the most tremulous of connections, before things return to normality. Yet normality has changed in the process too, with Cory’s connection to Ben, and to the entire Indian community, feeling much more tentative after Jane departs. Whether Jane has changed has harder to say, since part of the dexterity of the film is that it doesn’t provide us with much about her personal life, making it difficult to discern the kind of life-changing encounter with nature – or with Indians – that might conclude a more conventional film. What is clear is that Wind River finds itself unable, at the eleventh hour, to metaphorise the Indian population in any stable way, although whether it’s worth casting a white protagonist to make that point is perhaps another question, and a question more indebted to Sheridan’s western forebears than his film might readily admit.