Light spoilers are contained in the article. No major plot twists or reveals though, promise!
Wind River is star-studded, brilliant, and you don’t even know it because it’s about a Native American reservation in the state of Wyoming. Two things Americans do not give a fuck about.
You know Jeremy Renner.
You know Gil Birmingham. The one from Twilight and Hell or High Water. *…sigh* The one gentleman always playing a Native American character?
You also know Elizabeth Olsen, Mary Kate and Ashley’s younger and currently much more relevant sister with a prolific acting résumé herself.
And Jon Bernthal has been everywhere in movies as of late.
On top of the first-rate cast, the violent twists of the plot give you multiple layers of thrill and heartache which get deeper as the movie continues. Wind River highlights the sad reality of the neglect of Native American women as FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), hunter-turned-detective Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) and the six-man Wind River Reservation police force look to solve the case of a teenage girl’s death after her body was found frozen and bloodied, an autopsy later revealing she had been raped. As you watch the characters sink under the weight of the reservation’s depressing state of life, you start to think you know exactly what’s coming next until another stark reveal leaves you gasping.
Most scenes of Wind River are shot with less than five people in the frame. Exchanges between characters are kept terse and cold. The empty, miles-long shots of snowy mountains and biting winds set the story’s isolation in stone, a setting that communicates the same thing as the dialogue: out on the reservation, you’re cold, alone, and always in survival mode. This reality gets darker as you encounter other hardened, unforgiving residents of the reservation on the way to solving the young girl’s murder.
Agent Banner’s naïvely optimistic approach to the barren, no-holds-barred nature of Wind River tells us a lot about the reservation throughout the film. She asks the police chief for backup prior to a risky interrogation only to be told, “This isn’t the land of backup.” She insists on questioning the victim’s mother despite Martin’s (Gil Birmingham) warnings, leading her to walk in on the bloodied mother slashing her arm and sobbing in her bedroom.
Everyone around Agent Banner is grim and withdrawn. They know that hope and affability are limited resources, and using them as solutions to the pain of reservation life is like pouring water on desert sand hoping to make it fertile. Wind River shows us that Native reservations can be physical and emotional no-man’s lands. With no love and care coming into the reservation, the residents of Wind River barely have the energy to love and care for each other, let alone themselves.
As details of what happened to the girl are slowly revealed, you might first be outraged at how such a heinous crime could go unnoticed. But you understand soon enough. You understand why Twitter hasn’t gone crazy over the phenomenon of missing Native American women and girls. You get to the end of the movie and realize it’s just too ugly to care about, kinda like the Rohingya Muslim genocide going on in Myanmar as I type this.
A bare message in white lettering fades onto the screen informing the viewer that to this day, there is no data kept on missing Native American women and girls.
In order to air a Wind River-esque story on national news, Americans would have to be ready for some jarring reflection. People would have to remind themselves that the land they live on was taken in complete sin. They’d have to remind themselves that the original inhabitants of the land have been forced into living conditions and social isolation that would drive anyone insane. They’d also have to remind themselves that the struggles of these resilient communities are ongoing, and are just as unjust as the more glamorized stories of social inequity you hear about everyday.
This isn’t a condemnation of Black Lives Matter or hurricane coverage, but a call to intentionally keep Native Americans in the national discourse of social inequity. It’s a call to acknowledge the world’s ugly, not just the mainstream media-approved ugly we’ve sickeningly made normal. When an offering such as Wind River makes a push, it’s on us as conscious culture consumers to include this narrative in our year-end lists, our movie recommendations to our friends, and our social justice dialogue.
In Wind River, Agent Banner couldn’t singlehandedly change the reservation’s reality. However, her stubborn determination to care was the film’s light at the end of the tunnel. Like her, we can’t let a profound story about the forgotten be forgotten. We have to care.