So this one made it onto the best of lists of a few critics and was even a recommendation by my cinephile friend. Heck, it was even recommended by LYN members, a popular Malaysian English-language forum, though that is a rather dubious mark of honor. I don’t recognize the name of its writer / director Taylor Sheridan but I do recognize the MCU film stars. Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen are of course obvious but it also stars Jon Bernthal who plays the Punisher on television.
Cory Lambert is an experienced hunter who takes down dangerous predators for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While tracking a family of mountain lions that have killed livestock at the Wind River Indian Reservation, he comes across the body of a young Native American woman Natalie Hanson. After waiting for the arrival of an FBI agent Jane Banner, they determine that Natalie had been brutally beaten and raped and died after running six miles in the snow. Their investigation leads them first to Natalie’s parents, her brother who has fallen in with a gang of drug addicts and eventually to a nearby drilling rig. They learn that she has been dating a security guard at the site which has been closed for the winter. While this goes on, we learn of how Lambert’s family has been through a similar tragedy and the emptiness that seems to wear on the spirits of everyone who has to live amidst the snow and the mountains.
Between the unforgiving cold, the stark landscape and the hopelessness in the lives of the people who live there, it’s evident that this film is going for an effect similar to that in Winter’s Bone, the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career. Throw in sympathy for the plight of Native Americans plus insouciance or even disrespect from the white-centric government and you certainly have enough material for a great film. Unfortunately the execution falls short of its promise. The cinematography, the acting, the production values are all decent but overall Wind River falls too far on the side of being a mainstream, commercial film to be very interesting. For example Lambert is too stereotypical a white, John Wayne-type strong, silent hero of the old vein when the plot would have been better served by a Native American character in that role. It also tries too hard to offer crowd-pleasing excitement in the form of high-speed snowmobile rides and shoot-outs. I’d argue that those scenes represent individual expressions of power and so detract from the atmosphere of the piece which involves people being overwhelmed by society, circumstances and geography.
Most importantly, Wind River delves only very superficially into its chosen themes. While watching this, I recognized the pattern whereby serious dramas that are based on novels are usually much better than comparable efforts that were written specifically for the screen. This is because adaptations usually have the luxury of picking and choosing from a much richer vein of material than can be used in a film. Even stories and details that don’t show up onto the screen contribute to the worldbuilding and deep background. By contrast, writer / directors projects such as this feel overly parsimonious. What you see is all that there is. There’s just not enough depth here. For a film that is supposedly about Native Americans living on a reservation for example, it shows surprisingly little about what that’s like but there is plenty of authentic detail about how Lambert sets up his gun and hunts large animals.
Don’t get me wrong, I think this is still a solid and enjoyable watch. I also get that it means well. The scene in which Banner tacitly insults Natalie’s family by implying that they didn’t care about her enough is well done. It contrasts well with the later scene in which Banner shows an inordinate amount of trust to the white security guards at the drilling site. But this should have been a much better film and treating it as one of the best films of the year is, in my opinion, being content with expectations that are set too low.