Wind River

Cinema Faith Grade


In​ ​the​ ​past​ ​two​ ​years,​ ​actor​ ​Taylor​ ​Sheridan​ ​has​ ​quickly​ ​fashioned​ ​a​ ​new​ ​role​ ​for​ ​himself​ ​in Hollywood.​ A​ ​man​ ​known​ ​mostly​ ​for​ ​his​ ​work​ ​in​ ​police​ ​procedurals​ ​and​ ​Sons​ ​of​ ​Anarchy​ ​is​ ​now California’s​ ​cowboy​ ​auteur,​ ​a​ ​voice​ ​steeped​ ​in​ ​the​ ​bygone​ ​era​ ​of​ ​the​ ​classic​ ​Western.

I​ ​bring​ ​that​ ​up​ ​not​ ​because​ ​Sheridan’s​ ​work​ ​is​ ​​explicitly classic​ ​Western.​ ​You​ ​won’t​ ​see​ ​many horse-riding,​ ​gun-toting​ ​cowboys.​ ​In​ ​his​ ​modern​ ​version​ ​of​ ​high​ ​noon,​ ​horses​ ​are​ ​swapped​ ​for armored​ ​SUV’s​ ​and​ ​pickup​ ​trucks;​ ​pistols​ ​for​ ​assault​ ​rifles.​ ​Instead,​ ​Sheridan’s​ ​films​ ​evoke​ ​the essence​ ​of​ ​Western:​ ​wide​ ​open​ ​spaces​ ​and​ ​clear-cut​ ​hardships​ ​of​ ​the​ ​affected​ ​peoples.​ ​And​ ​in each​ ​of​ ​Sheridan’s​ ​first​ ​two​ ​entries,​ ​he​ ​tackled​ ​heavily​ ​politicized​ ​people​ ​groups​ ​by​ ​putting​ ​boots and​ ​blood​ ​on​ ​the​ ​ground.​ ​His​ ​breakout,​ ​​Sicario,​ ​explored​ ​the​ ​volatile​ ​and​ ​banal​ ​world​ ​of​ ​the U.S.-Mexico​ ​border​ ​while​ ​last​ ​year’s​ ​Oscar-nominated​ ​​Hell or High Water ​weighed​ ​the relationship​ ​between​ ​disaffected​ ​Texas​ ​white​ ​people​ ​and​ ​traditional​ ​law​ ​enforcement.​ ​It’s​ ​the closest​ ​to​ ​John​ ​Wayne​ ​and​ ​cowboys​ ​he’s​ ​been​ ​in​ ​his​ ​short​ ​career​ ​behind​ ​the​ ​camera.​ Both​ ​films acted​ ​without​ ​moral​ ​compass,​ ​deeply​ ​calling​ ​into​ ​question​ ​our​ ​feelings​ ​of​ ​justice​ ​and​ ​vengeance in​ ​harsh​ ​and​ ​often​ ​brutal​ ​ways.

Sheridan’s​ ​third​ ​entry​ ​mirrors​ ​many​ ​elements​ ​of​ ​the​ ​first​ ​two.​ ​​Wind River is​ ​just​ ​as​ ​wide​ ​open​ ​as its​ ​predecessors​ ​and,​ ​in​ ​the​ ​end,​ ​is​ ​just​ ​as​ ​brutal.​ ​But​ ​while​ ​the​ ​former​ ​films​ ​ask​ ​the​ ​audience​ ​to empathize,​ ​this​ ​one​ ​asks​ ​them​ ​to​ ​also​ ​listen​ ​and​ ​observe.​ ​It’s​ ​a​ ​subtle​ ​difference​ ​throughout,​ ​but one​ ​that​ ​becomes​ ​abrasively​ ​clear​ ​by​ ​the​ ​time​ ​it​ ​fades​ ​to​ ​black.

“This​ ​is​ ​the​ ​Land​ ​of,​ ​‘You’re​ ​on​ ​Your​ ​Own’”

I​ ​don’t​ ​know​ ​about​ ​you,​ ​but​ ​I​ ​always​ ​forget​ ​that​ ​Wyoming​ ​exists.​ ​I​ ​apologize​ ​to​ ​any​ ​potential Wyoming​ ​residents​ ​reading​ ​this:​ ​it’s​ ​just​ ​that​ ​I’m​ ​a​ ​midwestern​ ​kid,​ ​so​ ​all​ ​my​ ​travel​ ​has​ ​been focused​ ​on​ ​getting​ ​to​ ​tropical​ ​beaches​ ​or​ ​foreign​ ​countries.​ ​A​ ​trip​ ​to​ ​the​ ​mountains​ ​is​ ​nice,​ ​but I’ve​ ​got​ ​North​ ​Carolina​ ​or​ ​Colorado​ ​for​ ​that.​ ​And​ ​it’s​ ​not​ ​that​ ​I’d​ ​be​ ​opposed​ ​to​ ​visiting,​ ​it’s​ ​just never​ ​been​ ​my​ ​first​ ​choice.

I​ ​get​ ​the​ ​sense​ ​the​ ​residents​ ​of​ ​​Wind River feel​ ​the​ ​same​ ​way,​ ​namely​ ​because​ ​many​ ​of​ ​them explicitly​ ​say​ ​it.​ ​Throughout​ ​the​ ​film,​ ​several​ ​characters​ ​talk​ ​about​ ​the​ ​thought​ ​or​ ​hope​ ​of​ ​getting off​ ​the​ ​Wind​ ​River​ ​Indian​ ​Reservation.​ ​Be​ ​it​ ​the​ ​cold,​ ​the​ ​crime​ ​or​ ​the​ ​lack​ ​of​ ​opportunity,​ ​Wind River​ ​feels​ ​like​ ​a​ ​trap,​ ​one​ ​you​ ​can’t​ ​escape​ ​no​ ​matter​ ​how​ ​far​ ​or​ ​hard​ ​you​ ​run.​ ​The​ ​metaphors representing​ ​this​ ​idea​ ​are​ ​better​ ​shown​ ​than​ ​said;​ ​the​ ​movie’s​ ​more​ ​effective​ ​moments​ ​come​ ​in scenes​ ​of​ ​high​ ​and​ ​sudden​ ​drama​ ​rather​ ​than​ ​long​ ​discourse.​ ​It’s​ ​a​ ​hallmark​ ​Sheridan​ ​has​ ​built early​ ​in​ ​his​ ​career,​ ​and​ ​you​ ​get​ ​the​ ​sense​ ​he’s​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​shake​ ​it​ ​here.​ ​Still,​ ​the​ ​message​ ​comes through:​ ​not​ ​many​ ​people​ ​want​ ​to​ ​be​ ​in​ ​Wind​ ​River,​ ​but​ ​everyone​ ​seems​ ​to​ ​recognize​ ​the​ ​perils of​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​leave.

This​ ​sense​ ​of​ ​isolation​ ​and​ ​grim​ ​cynicism​ ​is​ ​what​ ​turns​ ​​Wind River into​ ​a​ ​tight,​ ​gripping​ ​thriller. In​ ​the​ ​opening​ ​of​ ​each​ ​door​ ​and​ ​the​ ​turn​ ​into​ ​every​ ​hallway,​ ​you​ ​get​ ​the​ ​sense​ ​that​ ​any​ ​mistake is​ ​fatal​ ​simply​ ​because​ ​no​ ​one​ ​is​ ​coming​ ​to​ ​pick​ ​up​ ​your​ ​slack.​ ​When​ ​Agent​ ​Jane​ ​Banner​ ​– Elizabeth​ ​Olsen​ ​turning​ ​in​ ​an​ ​admirable​ ​performance​ ​out​ ​of​ ​her​ ​comfort​ ​zone​ ​– ​guns​ ​down​ ​a criminal,​ ​she​ ​calls​ ​the​ ​sheriff​ ​for​ ​EMS.​ ​The​ ​sheriff,​ ​a​ ​native,​ ​instead​ ​watches​ ​the​ ​life​ ​leave​ ​the young​ ​man,​ ​despite​ ​her​ ​frequent​ ​calls​ ​to​ ​do​ ​otherwise.

The​ ​isolation​ ​also​ ​allows​ ​Sheridan​ ​to​ ​explore​ ​the​ ​more​ ​real-world​ ​issue​ ​of​ ​Native​ ​American reservations​ ​on​ ​a​ ​personal​ ​level.​ ​I’ll​ ​expound​ ​more​ ​shortly,​ ​but​ ​the​ ​above​ ​scene​ ​is​ ​a​ ​stunning look​ ​into​ ​the​ ​local​ ​law​ ​enforcement​ ​mindset.​ ​It​ ​shows​ ​through​ ​all​ ​the​ ​more​ ​clearly​ ​in​ ​Cory Lambert’s​ ​–​ ​a​ ​reliable​ ​leading-man​ ​turn​ ​from​ ​Jeremy​ ​Renner​ ​–​ ​conversation​ ​with​ ​a​ ​murdered girl’s​ ​junkie​ ​brother.​ ​The​ ​young​ ​man​ ​sits​ ​in​ ​the​ ​back​ ​of​ ​a​ ​squad​ ​vehicle,​ ​resigned​ ​to​ ​his​ ​future. “Going​ ​to​ ​jail’s​ ​almost​ ​a​ ​badge​ ​of​ ​honor,”​ ​the​ ​sheriff​ ​says​ ​in​ ​one​ ​way​ ​or​ ​the​ ​other.​ ​Renner​ ​pulls much-needed​ ​information​ ​out​ ​of​ ​him​ ​by​ ​appealing​ ​to​ ​his​ ​dreams​ ​outside​ ​the​ ​reservation.​ ​Didn’t he​ ​ever​ ​want​ ​to​ ​be​ ​something​ ​other​ ​than​ ​a​ ​criminal​ ​or​ ​a​ ​drug user?

Of​ ​course,​ ​says​ ​the​ ​young​ ​native.​ ​But​ ​the​ ​reservation:​ ​“It​ ​takes​ ​and​ ​it​ ​takes.”

“So​ ​What​ ​Did​ ​You​ ​Take?”

The​ ​symbolism​ ​of​ ​“taking”​ ​is​ ​pretty​ ​heavy-handed​ ​throughout​ ​the​ ​film,​ ​particularly​ ​in​ ​an otherwise​ ​brilliant​ ​third​ ​act.​ ​Of​ ​course,​ ​Sheridan’s​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​turn​ ​the​ ​idea​ ​of​ ​Manifest​ ​Destiny​ ​on its​ ​head.​ ​The​ ​idea​ ​that​ ​unwanted​ ​land​ ​is​ ​draining​ ​the​ ​life​ ​from​ ​an​ ​already​ ​displaced​ ​people​ ​is crushing​ ​and​ ​could​ ​sometimes​ ​use​ ​a​ ​bit​ ​more​ ​subtlety.

But​ ​I’m​ ​also​ ​of​ ​the​ ​opinion​ ​that​ ​heavy-handedness​ ​is​ ​OK​ ​when​ ​speaking​ ​to​ ​an​ ​unrepentant grievance.​ ​In​ ​perhaps​ ​the​ ​scene’s​ ​most​ ​powerful​ ​scene,​ ​Agent​ ​Banner​ ​visits​ ​the​ ​home​ ​of​ ​the murdered​ ​teenager,​ ​seeking​ ​to​ ​do​ ​a​ ​job​ ​that​ ​she’s​ ​been​ ​clear​ ​she​ ​doesn’t​ ​feel​ ​qualified​ ​to​ ​do. When​ ​speaking​ ​to​ ​the​ ​girl’s​ ​father,​ ​she​ ​hurls​ ​micro-aggressions​ ​and​ ​condescension,​ ​earning​ ​his ire.​ ​“​ ​Why​ ​is​ ​it​ ​that​ ​whenever​ ​you​ ​people​ ​try​ ​to​ ​help​ ​us,​ ​you​ ​always​ ​insult​ ​us​ ​first,”​ ​he​ ​declares. The​ ​phrase​ ​“you​ ​people”​ ​is​ ​loaded,​ ​particularly​ ​across​ ​racial​ ​lines.​ ​It’s​ ​also​ ​striking​ ​when​ ​in​ ​the next​ ​minute​ ​the​ ​same​ ​man​ ​is​ ​hysterically​ ​weeping​ ​into​ ​another​ ​white​ ​person’s​ ​arms.​ ​It​ ​makes sense​ ​though.​ ​Olsen’s​ ​Agent​ ​Banner​ ​is​ ​an​ ​outsider,​ ​another​ ​reminder​ ​of​ ​the​ ​outside​ ​world​ ​that seems​ ​like​ ​an​ ​impossible​ ​escape.​ ​Meanwhile,​ ​Renner’s​ ​Lambert​ ​is​ ​a​ ​man​ ​of​ ​the​ ​reservation,​ ​not because​ ​of​ ​his​ ​ethnicity,​ ​but​ ​because​ ​of​ ​his​ ​shared​ ​experiences.

The​ ​distinction​ ​is​ ​striking.​ ​And​ ​while​ ​I’m​ ​tempted​ ​to​ ​be​ ​bothered​ ​by​ ​the​ ​notion​ ​of​ ​Renner​ ​as​ ​a white​ ​savior​ ​on​ ​a​ ​native​ ​reservation,​ ​I’m​ ​also​ ​comforted​ ​to​ ​know​ ​that​ ​he’s​ ​not​ ​saving​ ​anyone other​ ​than​ ​himself​ ​in​ ​the​ ​end.​ ​He​ ​later​ ​reminds​ ​Agent​ ​Banner​ ​that​ ​luck​ ​doesn’t​ ​exist​ ​on​ ​the reservation.​ ​If​ ​you​ ​want​ ​to​ ​survive,​ ​you​ ​learn​ ​to​ ​fight:​ ​for​ ​your​ ​sanity​ ​and​ ​against​ ​your​ ​grief.

I​ ​walked​ ​out​ ​of​ ​the​ ​movie​ ​wanting​ ​to​ ​know​ ​more​ ​and​ ​to​ ​have​ ​more​ ​conversations​ ​about​ ​the​ ​topic of​ ​reservations.​ ​Sheridan’s​ ​efforts​ ​here​ ​may​ ​not​ ​be​ ​the​ ​most​ ​artful​ ​at​ ​times,​ ​but​ ​they’re​ ​effective if​ ​that’s​ ​the​ ​attitude​ ​his​ ​film​ ​creates.

The Issue of Hope

I’ve​ ​lately​ ​been​ ​thinking​ ​a​ ​lot​ ​about​ ​the​ ​narrative​ ​need​ ​for​ ​hope,​ ​specifically​ ​when​ ​it​ ​comes​ ​to film.​ ​I’m​ ​all​ ​for​ ​watching​ ​heavier​ ​movies,​ ​but​ ​cold​ ​narcissism​ ​misrepresents​ ​the​ ​world​ ​as​ ​I understand​ ​it.​ ​And​ ​that’s​ ​a​ ​criticism​ ​I’ve​ ​heard​ ​about​ ​Sheridan’s​ ​films​ ​from​ ​some​ ​people.​ ​They’re too​ ​cold​ ​and​ ​violent​ ​and​ ​unflinching​ ​when​ ​staring​ ​into​ ​the​ ​darkness​ ​of​ ​humanity.

I​ ​felt​ ​that​ ​way​ ​sometimes​ ​while​ ​watching​ ​​Wind River.​ ​It’s​ ​not​ ​his​ ​most​ ​violent​ ​or​ ​shocking​ ​film, but​ ​it​ ​does​ ​linger​ ​more​ ​than​ ​either​ ​of​ ​his​ ​previous​ ​two.​ ​The​ ​questions​ ​he​ ​raises​ ​are​ ​beyond​ ​any resolution​ ​he​ ​could​ ​draw​ ​up​ ​in​ ​2​ ​hours​ ​or​ ​any​ ​that​ ​we’ve​ ​seen​ ​in​ ​more​ ​than​ ​200​ ​years.​ ​But​ ​I​ ​will say​ ​the​ ​film’s​ ​final​ ​10​ ​minutes​ ​are​ ​highly​ ​redemptive;​ ​the​ ​last​ ​scene​ ​is​ ​particularly​ ​touching.

Two​ ​men​ ​sit​ ​together,​ ​reflecting​ ​on​ ​the​ ​way​ ​their​ ​lives​ ​have​ ​gone,​ ​the​ ​weight​ ​of​ ​their​ ​now-shared history​ ​heavy​ ​in​ ​the​ ​air.​ ​One​ ​asks​ ​the​ ​other​ ​if​ ​they​ ​can​ ​sit​ ​together​ ​a​ ​little​ ​longer.​ ​The​ ​other replies,​ ​he​ ​isn’t​ ​going​ ​anywhere.​ ​It’s​ ​here​ ​where​ ​​Wind River finds​ ​its​ ​heart​ ​and,​ ​ultimately,​ ​its saving​ ​grace.

While​ ​there​ ​are​ ​no​ ​particularly​ ​religious​ ​overtones​ ​in​ ​​Wind River,​ ​you​ ​can​ ​almost​ ​call​ ​this​ ​scene –​ ​and​ ​others​ ​like​ ​it​ ​–​ ​a​ ​type​ ​of​ ​church.​ ​It’s​ ​not​ ​in​ ​a​ ​building​ ​or​ ​a​ ​home.​ ​And​ ​it’s​ ​certainly​ ​not​ ​in​ ​the wilderness​ ​none​ ​of​ ​them​ ​asked​ ​to​ ​be​ ​trapped​ ​in.​ ​Instead,​ ​it’s​ ​found​ ​in​ ​the​ ​connections​ ​the characters​ ​build​ ​with​ ​each​ ​other​ ​and​ ​the​ ​burdens​ ​they​ ​share.​ ​There’s​ ​a​ ​quiet​ ​sort​ ​of​ ​elevation​ ​in the​ ​promise​ ​of​ ​shared​ ​struggle,​ ​one​ ​that​ ​can​ ​warm​ ​even​ ​the​ ​coldest​ ​of​ ​Wyoming​ ​nights.