There are multiple things I can identify that I liked about Wind River, and multiple things I can identify that I didn’t particularly like.
Wind River takes place on an Indian reservation, in the dead of winter. Neither the male lead nor the female lead are Native Americans, but the majority of the other significant characters are, and the movie is clearly sympathetic to Native American issues and concerns.
Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner—the guy from The Hurt Locker) is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent whose specialty is tracking and hunting. He kills wild animals that have become a threat to humans and such. One day he comes upon the corpse of a young Indian woman.
The film then becomes a murder mystery. An FBI agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) soon arrives to investigate. (She’s not super hot, but because this is Hollywood, she’s hotter than 99.6% of real life FBI agents.)
Lambert and Banner join forces to figure out what happened to the dead woman, and to catch whoever is responsible.
I’ll mention right off the bat one thing that I disliked about Wind River. This is one of those movies where the audience is encouraged to side with a guy who kills people, breaks the law, functions as a vigilante who doesn’t bother with technicalities like arrest warrants, trials, etc., because he’s a square-jawed, no-nonsense, alpha male fighting for a good cause.
Another thing that for me is a bit more of a negative than a positive is that this is one of those movies that gives you information about the characters and the story in dribs and drabs, where you have to gradually piece it together like a jigsaw puzzle.
So it’s kind of a meta-mystery. Yes, the subject matter itself is a crime investigation, so it’s a mystery in that straightforward sense, but the way it tells the story of that investigation is mysterious in itself. That is, you aren’t privy to the information that is no mystery to the characters themselves until the film happens to reveal it, or hint at it.
You don’t know until well into the film that various characters have a history with each other, that Lambert suffered a tragedy in his family relevant to this crime, etc.
I mean, I’m sure for many viewers this added level of mystery just adds to the sophistication and hence the appeal of the movie. And I don’t disagree a hundred percent. For my personal taste I think I would have preferred more time and effort had been spent on the core mystery itself rather than this game of hiding things from the audience, but I’d say it’s a slight preference.
Because really not a whole lot is done with the actual murder mystery. For a full length movie, there’s less going on with that than you would expect, and in part that’s because a certain amount of attention instead is paid to gradually revealing the back story of Lambert and the other characters. By the time you’re more or less up to speed with what the characters themselves knew all along, there’s not much time left for a detailed and well-developed resolution of the murder mystery itself. Indeed, a lot of that is given away in flashbacks, so it’s not even that much of a mystery.
On the other hand, although I’m not thrilled with the film’s hide-and-seek manner of introducing other elements, other themes, beyond a simple crime investigation and climactic shoot-out between the good guys and bad guys, those other elements are mostly quite interesting and I’m glad they’re explored.
The film raises a lot of thought-provoking, human issues, like the sometimes appalling conditions on Indian reservations and the extent to which they are an effect of institutional racism and past and present wrongs done to Native Americans, parenting pain and self-doubt from the most mundane to the most tragic, the psychology of sexual violence, and more. Arguably some of that is a bit simplistic or preachy, but mostly its approach to these important issues is intelligent and skillful.
There’s an emotionally moving scene, for instance, where Lambert visits a Native American friend of his who has lost his daughter, and finds him sitting in a contemplative, ritualistic posture with his face painted. He finds out that he is considering suicide. He asks him about the face painting. His friend tells him it’s symbolically related to his potential suicide, but with a shrug confesses that he’s really just guessing how a member of his tribe would have painted himself in such a situation. “There’s no one left to teach me” about the traditions of his people, he confesses sadly.
I will also say that the atmospherics of this film are very good. The cold, the extreme weather, is quite powerful. It’s relevant to multiple of the deaths too. Lambert comments that it’s kind of a Darwinian thing, that if you live in New York or some big city, you mostly have a much easier life, and if you do die it could be just some dumb luck thing like getting hit by a bus. Whereas out here, in these conditions, you really need to have your shit together, as there is a strong correlation between how effectual, brave, knowledgeable, and just plain tough you are and how likely you are to survive.
I didn’t realize until I happened to read it after seeing the movie that Wind River was written and directed by the same guy who wrote Hell or High Water—Taylor Sheridan. Though there were things about Wind River that didn’t work for me, and though I found it slow and unengaging at times, I’m inclined to give it a close-call thumbs up, but I would rank it below Hell or High Water.