During one of the later scenes of Wind River, a character talks about the rural Wyoming setting of the film as nothing but “snow and silence.” If you were looking for an alternate title, that would be appropriate. Much of the film is devoted to highlighting the cold desolation of its location. This is not, however, a detriment. Rather, it is a vital component in establishing the overall feeling of the film. The Wind River reservation, where much of the film takes place, is an area with few prospects, and little hope of escape.
The film opens with a young, terrified woman running barefoot across a seemingly endless expanse of snow in the middle of the night. Barefoot, she collapses. We then open on a herd of sheep hounded by coyotes. Shots ring out, two coyotes are killed, and we see that Jeremy Renner’s character, Cory Lambert, is responsible. Camouflaged for winter, Cory works for the Fish and Wildlife Service. His job is to track predators, and hunt them down. He will spend most of the film hunting dangerous prey.
Cory Lambert is the father of a young son and is divorced from his wife, a member of the Arapaho tribe. His former in-laws have had one of their herd killed by a predator, and he is tasked with hunting down the animal responsible. While tracking the animal in the vast, empty expanses of Wyoming, he comes across the frozen corpse of a young native woman. Due to the body having been found on a reservation, a member of the FBI is required for the inquiry to proceed. Agent Jane Banner, played by Elizabeth Olsen, is the agent called to the scene. She’s flown in from Las Vegas, the nearest FBI field station, and is unprepared for the brutal cold of the mountains. Hers is the classic fish out of water character; eager, intelligent, but also wholly dependent on the locals. Graham Greene does an excellent job portraying Ben, the chief of the tribal police. With little help from government authorities, it falls on Cory, Agent Banner, and Ben to solve the case.
What follows is a movie that explores the life of a people struggling on the fringes of American society. The Arapaho living on the Wind River reservation have spent a century ignored by the U.S. government. Of the few resources they have, the most important is the land, which stretches for miles. It comprises a vast area of desolate plains and towering mountains. It is a reflction of life on the reservation, where little can happen for long stretches of time. Only tragedy and violence seem to break up the monotony of daily life.
The film opens with the line that it is based on actual events. Writer-director Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote the screenplays for Sicario and Hell or High Water, successfully portrays the lives of a marginalized tribe of native people. As a viewer, you have no difficulty in believing the reality portrayed on screen. The pacing is deliberate and carefully measured to match the tone of the scenes. This may leave some frustrated with a lack of action, but the quiet stretches make the intense periods that much more effective. Wind River is compelling enough to keep you interested in finding the answers the main characters are seeking. While not an edge of your seat thriller, it’s a film that will have you invested until the end.