If there’s one thing that can be said about Taylor Sheridan, it’s that he knows how to craft an impeccable screenplay. His latest, Wind River, which he also directs, bears the same hallmarks as his previous work Sicario. It is a meticulously made thriller, carefully crafted, with pitch perfect pacing that will wind you so tight it’ll take hours to relax again. Sheridan also continues to build his scripts around pressing social issues, in this case, the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women. Like Sicario, Wind River provides a relentless stream of violent, visceral thrills that come like a shotgun blast to the chest. To call it entertaining would be a stretch, but the images it presents are haunting and impossible to forget. It is deeply disturbing and uncomfortable at every turn and that is the point. Sheridan is forcing you to look where you don’t want to.
It is impossible to fault the craft of Wind River. It is also a film filled with good intentions that are undercut by Sheridan’s choice of focal characters. The narrative centres around the death of Natalie, a young native American woman. While the subject of missing and murdered indigenous women is something that desperately requires more attention, Wind River manages to further marginalize the community most affected by building the story as a white man’s revenge narrative. Our window to the story is Cory (Jeremy Renner), a white man who married into the indigenous community. The primary female voice of the film comes in the form of Jane (Elizabeth Olsen), the white FBI agent assigned to investigate Natalie’s death. This forces the native characters of the film into second class positions in their own narrative, which leaves a bad aftertaste.
A generous reading of Wind River would be to say that the centralizing of white voices in a uniquely indigenous story is an attempt to convince the white population that this is their issue too, but this feels like a cop-out. It shouldn’t be necessary to provide a white perspective to get people to care. The framing of the film through the eyes of two white characters further silences this group of women who society at large continue to ignore.
This level of disrespect towards native women is perfectly encapsulated early in the film as Jane argues with the medical examiner about Natalie’s cause of death. This exchange happens literally over Natalie’s naked, open corpse. While Jane clearly wants justice for Natalie, Sheridan’s choice to show this over the fragmented and venerable body of the victim robs Natalie of her personhood, even as it is being verbally advocated for by a stranger. Natalie becomes an object, the parameters of which will be decided by two white people. Even though Sheridan has the foresight to give Natalie a voice later in the film, it is not quite enough to undo the damage of her objectification earlier.
The most troubling aspect of Wind River is, however, not the reduction of Natalie’s body into an inanimate object. In many ways, the film represents Natalie, and by extension native women, as people of unparalleled strength and bravery, however, for the most part, their stories get to be told by others. We get only glimpses of Natalie’s mother as she struggles with the grief of losing her child. She never gets to speak. Cory’s wife exists as his tie to past traumas; she never gets her own story. And Cory’s mother-in-law gets one small scene that serves to foreshadow Cory’s narrative trajectory.
Fortunately, the film isn’t completely absent of a native perspective. While the narrative weight is firmly on the shoulders of white men, the emotional core of the film belongs to the men of the Wind River reserve. It is these roles that keep Wind River from being overpowered by the whiteness of the film’s leading cast, and allow for redemption. The performance of Gil Birmingham as Natalie’s grieving father is so powerful, it echoes through the film even when he’s not onscreen. His grief is a solid, tangible thing; stronger than any image. It gives Wind River strength, and most importantly, solidifies the film’s native perspective.
There are many good things to say about Wind River. It is a beautiful example of film craft, and its attempt to combat the apathy of society at large to the epidemic of missing and murdered indigenous women is admirable. It just would have been nice if Sheridan could have achieved this goal without further silencing indigenous women.
Is Wind River Essential Viewing?
For all the issues of representation it presents, Wind River is still a must see. In some ways, it’s erasure of the female native voice is so blatant, it can’t help but raise awareness of the absence. This is far from a perfect solution, but it is also impossible to forget.
Wind River opens Friday, August 11, 2017 at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity. Check their website for more information.