I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Wind River

WIND RIVER, new on video this week, is a thriller written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, who’s on the radar now because he wrote SICARIO and HELL OR HIGH WATER. Jeremy Renner (Catwoman: The Game) plays Cory Lambert, a hunter for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Wyoming. When he drives out to the Wind River Indian Reservation to find what wild animal killed some livestock and spend some time with his son Casey (Teo Briones) he finds a dead woman in the snow. He knows her, her name is Natalie (Kelsey Asbille, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN). She’s a good friend’s daughter. When they ask him to help show around FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, OLDBOY) he ends up unofficially joining the investigation with her and tribal sheriff Ben (Graham Greene, DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE).

It’s a quiet, broody modern western type of a movie with matter-of-fact badassness in the dialogue and bursts of violence, tonally comparable to the aforementioned Sheridan joints, THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADAS ESTRADA, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, stuff like that. But unlike any of those the wide-open landscapes are covered in snow. It’s not sweaty, it’s frost-bitten.

There’s more going on here than is immediately stated. The reason Cory takes this so personally, why his ex-wife Wilma (Julia Jones, HELL RIDE, JONAH HEX) refuses to ever go back to the rez, why her parents have winter clothes to loan to Jane, why Cory looks at her the way he does when she puts them on, is that his daughter was killed too. In fact, Natalie was her best friend, who reported her missing. So he’s eager not only to share his grieving experience with her father Martin (Gil Birmingham, Jeff Bridges’ partner in HELL OR HIGH WATER, also he used to be a bodybuilder and played Conan the Barbarian at Universal Studios Hollywood), but to get the killer for him – something he was unable to do for himself.

There’s a macho paternalistic thing going on here. Protecting daughters, avenging daughters. A movie about missing Native American women, but helped largely by white people. And the man is the lead even though the woman is the FBI agent. I have friends who, although they agreed it was good, had a problem with it being a white people story or a man story. You may agree, and these things were definitely in the back of my mind, but I think there’s plenty to counteract them. It has what I think of as a novelistic structure where right as they’re on the verge of figuring out what happened it flashes back to show us what led up to it. And in this segment we finally meet Natalie and she’s so vividly full of life we feel like we knew her all along as a present tense person, not a past tense victim. And she seems so much more in control of the situation than we assumed, or than her brother (Martin Sensmeier, MAGNIFICENT SEVEN) said. Until she’s not.

I like how much it refuses to glamorize murder. The perpetrator is not only sick, but pathetic and cowardly. As they always say, rape is about power, and Cory makes a vivid closing argument to the face of the rapist about his weakness vs. Natalie’s status as a true “warrior.” I love his fascination with (SPOILER) Natalie running six miles in the snow barefoot, and Jane bringing it up later in the hospital. When she says it it’s with horror and sympathy. When he says it it’s with admiration.

Cory’s rugged-hunter-loner philosophizing about survival is my favorite part of the movie. He makes some good speeches and has some great tough guy dialogue. “I’m a hunter, Martin. What do you think I’m doin?”

HELL OR HIGH WATER also dealt with the mistreatment of Native Americans and their existence in the modern world. This one is more direct about it, though the protagonist is still white. This time he’s down via marriage and fatherhood (like Seagal in THE PATRIOT). He’s portrayed as what they call now a “good ally,” because he tries to make his son proud of the Native side of his heritage and he speaks up for their historic struggles even when only among white people. He does get called out once for saying “we.” But the sadistic vengeance that he applies seems to be not only for Natalie, or Martin, or his daughter Rachel, but for all indigenous people who have been savaged by white people.

But it reminds me more of SICARIO. We have another female law enforcement agent who is nervous, seemingly over her head, pushed around and discounted, this time for being an outsider sent in unexpectedly, unprepared, unsure how things are done around here. But hell yeah she comes through. She proves herself tough as hell, just in more of a John McClane way than a Beatrix Kiddo. She can be physically overpowered by men, and that means she has to fight harder and longer to overcome them. But she can shoot, she can fearlessly yell down a mob of dudes all pointing guns at each other, she can manage a life-or-death situation with pepper spray in her eyes.

Though the age difference between them doesn’t seem vast, I think the wearing of his daughter’s clothes gives him an extra need to protect her, but all he really does is tend to her wounds afterwards. She survives in what Ben calls “the land of you’re on your own.”

You see a story like this, you expect it to tie together. When he figures out who killed Natalie, he’ll figure out who killed his own daughter, right? Nah, I don’t think so. Life’s not usually that simple. He’ll probly never know the answer to that, and he’d be the first to tell you it wouldn’t help that much. No – actually Wilma would be the first one. “You won’t get the answers you’re looking for, no matter what you find.” This is more about him living with the unknowable.

I like how the ending (YES, SPOILER) lightens all this horribleness a little bit by making us think it’s gonna get even worse and then cutting us some slack. Early in the movie that are hints that Martin could be suicidal, so when Cory returns to his house and can’t find him, we get a couple minutes of fearing the worst. It’s such a relief to find out that not only is Martin alive, but that he was saved from an unexpected place – a call from his fuck-up son, who probly wouldn’t have done so without Cory’s intervention. A little bit of hope, a little bit of redemption, out there in the cold.

p.s.

I think there need to be more Native American stories told by Native American filmmakers, but is it fair to hold that against a movie that’s something else? I think people would be equally or more offended if this white guy Taylor Sheridan presumed to tell the story with all Native characters, and I don’t think asking him to ignore Natives in his movies because he’s white is the answer either.

That’s my feeling, but I don’t want to be the white guy pretending to have the final word on that, so I looked for reviews from Native American media sources. In doing so I learned that the film was 90% financed by a company called Acadia Entertainment that’s owned by the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe. They also produced LBJ!

Anyway, I found this very negative piece by Charles Kader on Indianz.com. He actually only mentions seeing a commercial for the movie, but I think we can be pretty sure he wouldn’t like the full movie either. (He does like KNIGHTRIDERS though!)

This review by Vincent Schilling of Indian Country Today is not as well written as the Kader piece, but is extremely favorable about the movie:

Movie Review: Taylor Sheridan’s ‘Wind River’ is Gripping, Realistic and Beautifully-Crafted

Also this New York Times piece by Kevin Noble Maillard, “What’s So Hard About Casting Indian Actors in Indian Roles?”, is a thoughtful look at that topic.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 15th, 2017 at 10:31 am and is filed under Action, Mystery, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

24 Responses to “Wind River”

  1. This worked best for me in the first half when it’s a genre thriller that takes on serious themes (like in the old Walter Hill style, or PRISONERS), but then I think it makes a mistake of trying to be a message-movie foremost. It has a good sense of location, anyway.

    I had the same concerns about it being a white saviour narrative. I’d never say it shouldn’t be allowed to take this route; I just wonder about the rationale of also making the secondary lead a white character. I personally would be less bothered if Taylor Sheridan told it as an indigenous story (so long as he did his research), but who gets to tell Native narratives is a very hot topic debate, especially here in Canada, and I’m also a white dude, so I don’t claim to know what’s the best approach. I just see a movie like this, and am like, “Ok, THAT’s how you wanted to tell this story?”

  2. I liked this one. I posted thoughts in the comment section to HELL OR HIGH WATER (and just copy and pasted them into my Letterboxd) and I was needlessly bitchy and snarky. I think the movie is real good and deserves to be seen. Shame one of the Native American actors don’t get the lead but at least this one had a large supporting cast of Native American actors, that accounts for something. Gil Birmingham seems like an actor if given the chance could really knock it out the park. Graham Greene is good as always and also seems like he would knock it out the park as well if given the chance. Also really loved the ending.
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    SPOILER**Still think the flashback/quick-rape is useless and unneeded though. Also I stand by my bitchy/snarky comments about the ‘indie film aesthetic’ with the constant hand held shots **SPOILER
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  3. Haven’t seen it yet (looking forward to it!) but the rationale behind two white characters was likely, and unfortunately, at least partly capitalistic. There aren’t really any Native movie stars. It’s a lot easier to get a movie made and then distributed if it’s starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen than it would be if it was Jeremy Renner and a previously-unknown Native actor.

  4. JTS, I’m sure you’re right about the rationale being capitalistic, but that rationale is wrong and we need to nail it right now. APOCALYPTO made $120 M worldwide on a budget of like $30 M; here in the UK it held the record for the highest opening weekend by a foreign language film.

    If you build it they will come.

  5. Y’know, the funny thing is that I don’t even think the audience cares too much whose in it now-a-days. At least the much older audience I usually deal and congregate with. My mom was super excited for this one and she ain’t never even heard of Renner or Olsen. She just wanted to see it because the previews made it look interesting and she likes mysteries. The movie totally could’ve starred ‘no-name’ Native American actors and she still would have wanted to go see it. When I went to see THE FOREIGNER I was sat next to two old gents I’m reasonably sure (from how they were talking) have never been Jackie Chan or even Pierce Brosnan fans. They just wanted to see a nice old school thriller like they used to make in abundance back in their day.

  6. One thing that I didn’t bring up in the review, but might be relevant to the discussion, is that having white government officials working with Native government officials is part of the theme of the movie. If it was not about the relations between two cultures and histories it would be a very different story. (Not that it couldn’t be a better story.)

  7. I’m waiting to watch this film, when it makes it to Europe, or becomes available on a non-region BR; everything I keep hearing about it makes it sound increasingly better. It seems that the director wanted to make it to bring greater attention to the uninterrupted abuse and the numerous “disappearances” of women from reservations and tribal territories, and I wonder if this film will finally succeed in doing so. It’s certainly not a widely discussed subject; I’ll bet that if I asked someone in the US (not to mention anyone from my country, two oceans away) about such cases as e.g. the murder of Helen Osborne, or the vanishing of Tammy Mahoney, not even 1 person in a 1000 would know what I was talking about (even though the first case was even the subject of a TV miniseries –

    ).

    The last time that Hollywood touched similar subjects was probably in “Thunderheart” (an excellent film in its own right, too – although apparently more action-oriented and formulaic than this one sounds to be).

  8. Crushinator Jones

    November 15th, 2017 at 2:22 pm

    I don’t know about the white savior thing. The reality is that white people are gonna be a part of any Native American movie that involves anything beyond immediate family. For good or bad.

    I mean what do people want? Do they want a movie that unrealistically says that Native Americans are able to bootstrap themselves out of these situations, or ignore white intervention? That they have the resources and institutions that they need to help themselves? That they are allowed to be autonomous? Because, uh, that seems kind of insulting. It basically ignores the at Native Americans have been destroyed economically, socially, emotionally by White Power, their only way out is through the institutions controlled by White Power, either through subversion or submission.

    I don’t know, I really am conflicted because it’s not a bad thing in my mind to acknowledge that Native Americans have been caged, and who put them there, and who has the power to get them out. On the other hand you don’t want people feeling that they are helpless, can’t get by without whitey, etc. Complicated stuff.

  9. The Undefeated Gaul

    November 15th, 2017 at 3:10 pm

    I really liked this one, it made an impression on me, stuck with me. No mention of Bernthal in the review, who I felt once again did a lot with what’s basically a cameo, just like SICARIO, and the guy is just as convincing as a good hearted dude as he is as a sadistic bastard, or a volatile traumatized soldier, or whatever really. One of my absolute fav actors working today. Liked Renner in this too, seems like forever since I last saw him in a proper dramatic role. I like him in blockbuster stuff like Avengers and Mission: Impossible but this is the type of part where he shows he’s actually a damn good actor.

    SPOILERS

    So I was unsure if I should interpret the story like this group of rapists/murderers has been at this type of thing more often and may possibly also have killed Renner’s daughter, but reading this review it seems more logical now that it was completely unrelated. Thats the message of the film after all, this type of shit apparently happens all the time

  10. Undefeated Gaul – He’s one of my favorite actors too and he really shines in that scene, but I purposely didn’t mention him because I didn’t know he was going to be in it and enjoyed being surprised when he showed up. (I hedged my bets though and included a tag for him.)

  11. I feel like you are all going to hate me.

    I didn’t like Sicario. Found it really boring.

  12. even without the titlistical similarity, this one sounds like it’s got a little bit in common with that Melissa Leo movie “Frozen River” from awhile back.

  13. The Undefeated Gaul

    November 15th, 2017 at 11:09 pm

    Oh right, it didnt register as a surprise for me as I already knew in advance he was in it. Sorry if I ruined that bit for anyone.

  14. The Undefeated Gaul

    November 15th, 2017 at 11:20 pm

    I think one of the things that stuck with me the most is when Renner tells Olsen that when you have kids you gotta always be on the ball, that “you cannot blink”… Being a dad of two little girls its all too easy to relate to the horror these characters go through. Of course its much more dangerous for girls on the reservation in the film than it is in my country, but even here we get the occasional fucked up kidnap/rape/murder case. Couple weeks back the whole country was obsessed with this missing girl for 10 days or so, everyone looking for her, but it ended in the worst possible way as she’d been killed by some asshole.

    Hard not too feel affected by these things, even in movies (especially one based on reality like Wind River). Dont need to tell you I felt a nice bit of catharsis at the end of the film, and wish Renner’s character could stop by here for a visit!

  15. Amazing credit for Renner!

  16. Sternshein – i absolutely hated HELL OR HIGH WATER. don’t sweat it, man.

  17. I was blown away by this movie – it was unexpected as I like Hell or High Water, and I like Sicario a lot – but they’re solid movies rather than ones I would go out of why way to tell people to watch.

    This one felt like a smaller movie, but one with more depth – and I liked how it approached updating the western by looking at how the themes and logic of those movies can apply to modern-day stories, rather than just referencing those sorts of visuals or giving someone a hat. Renner is not one of my favourite actors, (seems like a nice guy) but this movie made me do a 180 on my opinion of him.

    SPOILER: I was not expecting the shoot-out, and the way they did a posse thing – and I loved it. Brutal but not OTT – in terms of sheer impact I think it is the best shoot-out scene in recent cinema – definitely outside of stylised John Wick-style action films anyway. It is probably more effective if you don’t know it is coming I guess, but it gets my heart racing just thinking about it months later.

    This is one of the best of the year for me. I thought HoHW’s oscar buzz was a bit over-the-top, but I suspect I’d actually root for this if it got a nom (unlikely tho). Been a solid year I think: this, The Florida Project, A Quiet Passion, Alien Covenant, Bahubali 2 are leading the pack.

  18. Taylor Sheridan is a white guy who in real life lived very closely with Native Americans on a reservation, but is not Native American himself. So he wrote a story about a white guy who lives very closely with Native Americans on a reservation but is not Native American himself. This isn’t some IP where it can be assigned to a filmmaker who checks off all the right boxes. It’s an original idea thought up and executed by a white guy, and if he didn’t think it up, nobody would have made it. Would it have been better from an actual Native american perspective? Maybe. Probably. Who knows? Show me that movie band I’ll decide which is better based on who’s the better filmmaker. It’s a weird notion but being born the same race as the characters your working with doesn’t magically make you a good storyteller. More diverse storytellers should be given opportunities to tell their stories, but a good story’s a good story no matter who’s telling it. It’s better to have guys like Sheridan at least trying to understand life outside his bubble than to just have a bunch of honkeys making movies about Instagram or needing to loosen up at your office job or whatever.

    Anyway, this is a good movie. Much better than HELL OR HIGH WATER, which felt like a pastiche to me. This one feels like a real story.

  19. Love these gems you find Vern. Thanks for pointing this one out to me man.

  20. Just saw this, and it was a great movie, I loved Renner’s character, there are multiple lines of dialogue that are going to stick with me — but I was not prepared for just how sad it was going to be, or at least make me. It hit me way harder than I would have expected.

  21. Exactly like Majestyk said:

    “I didn’t feel I had the right to tell the story from a Native American perspective. I spend a lot of time on the reservation, I have a lot of friends who were raised on reservations who guided and helped me, but I felt more comfortable writing about a man who had a foot in the world because I feel that I do. But I didn’t feel I had the authority to write an Indian as a protagonist so I chose a method I thought showed respect and that I felt comfortable with. That’s the reason Cory is a white guy, because I am.”

    Sicario, Hell or High Water, Wind River: An American Frontier Trilogy

    “The heart of the film is suffering, suffering and enduring, collectively and deeply personally.” Writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water) is talking about his latest movie and directorial debut, Wind River, on the occasion…

  22. I enjoyed this a lot. This works well as a drama, mystery, and bad-ass film. Really enjoyed Jeremy Renner in particular. Probably the closest I’ll get to seeing Aaron Cross again. :)

    There is a very strong sense of the white characters being foregrounded and the Natives mostly just being in the background and having very little agency or competence, basically just counting on Jeremy Renner to be the white knight who saves the day. The movie takes great pains to show us what a tough and savvy badass Renner is, whereas the Natives tend to be portrayed as either broken or ineffectual or victims. And there does seem to be this weird implicit competence hierarchy of white male > white female > Native.

    On the other hand, it’s still a really solid film, and I think it’s a legit point as far as who else would you cast as the lead badass, and it still being a film that portrays Native Americans with a sense of humanity and pathos and not engaging in victim-blaming. And I like the way the film wrestles a bit internally with some of these same issues.

  23. I just got through watching this, it’s a very good though very upsetting at times movie.

    Thankfully there are moments of cathartic badassery, I laughed pretty good when Renner *SPOILER* tags some of the bad guys with his rifle, especially the way the first guy looks up like “huh, what is that?” before getting tagged.

  24. Wind River has better action that Justice League. That’s not a hot take, that’s just a fact, since the final shootout here is a hard-hitting instant classic.

    This is about as good as Hell or High Water, just a solid genre film that’s content with using a reliable setup and formula, but plays with the formula in just enough ways to feel fresh without really trying to upend or subvert anything. I really like how (SPOILER) it’s a mystery/whodunit where you have zero chance of guessing the killer but the resolution still feels satisfying and earned. Re: the “white savoir” thing, I normally roll my eyes at that complaint but Renner’s racial identity isn’t really a plot point like Tom Cruise’s in The Last Samurai or something – which on one hand means his character didn’t feel cynically whitewashed for Box Office Grosses, but also means the lead could have easily been Native American without changing much at all. It’s a double-edged sword. Renner is great so it doesn’t really bother me. One thing that DID bother me was nobody said a damn thing about (SPOILER) Graham Greene’s death. He seemed like a beloved chief and was 1/6 of the entire police force and I honestly didn’t know if he actually died since nobody said anything about him and this seems like a movie that would stop and reflect on that.

    Final note: I got major Seagal vibes from Renner’s character – his man-of-nature persona, brutal toughness and surprisingly frequent monologueing/advice-giving seemed like classic On Deadly Ground-era Seagal. Or Tommy Lee Jones in The Hunted – this character seems totally written for an older actor and in an alternate universe this easily could have been a Mickey Rourke-in-The-Wrestler comeback for Seagal. But let’s be honest, (and I think Vern will agree with me here) – like Gina Gershon’s BJ’s in Out for Justice, Seagal was never really that good. He never challenged himself in a way that Stallone, Van Damme, Schwarzenegger, The Rock, Diesel, or Statham have done, which is probably a big reason why he’s kinda stuck in a purgatory of “joke status” that these guys aren’t.

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