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Wind River is the third part of Taylor Sheridan’s American Frontier trilogy, the first to be directed by Sheridan and earning himself the Un Certain Regard prize for Best Director at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.
Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a US Fish and Wildlife Service agent who discovers a teenage Native American girl who froze to death in the middle of the Wind River Indian Reservation. When the coroner is unable to officially declare the death as murder the only people able to investigate are a young FBI agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), the local sheriff, Ben (Graham Greene) and Cory.
The previous films in the American Frontier trilogy were Sicario and Hell or High Water. As the name of the trilogy suggests, the American Frontier trilogy was a collection of neo-Western films – Sicario was set in Mexico, Hell or High Water in Texas and Wind River in the wilderness of Wyoming. Sheridan takes the setting and some of the tropes of the Western genre and gives them a modern twist. This time he focuses on the lives of Native Americans.
Sheridan also gets the visual motifs of the genre. The snowy landscapes match films like Day of the Outlaw and The Hateful Eight and Sheridan and his cinematographer Ben Richardson show the vast empty space of this location. This was emphasized with aerial shots of characters on snowmobiles in the unpopulated lands. Sheridan also gets the tension of the genre with one of the big moments being a standoff between some police officers and a group of oil workers – it was a classic Mexican stand-off.
The character of Cory also has some similarities to Western heroes – he is a wilderness man who is skilled at hunting and tracking, has an affinity for the Native Americans and is a loner who has experienced tragedy in his past. Like a Western character Cory has a gruff personality, is a man of few words and reluctantly gets involved with the case. The character also bears some similarities to Liam Neeson’s character in The Grey and the snowy locations and the survival scenes in the film did mildly resembles Renner’s first scenes in The Bourne Legacy.
According to IMDB Chris Pine was originally attached to play Cory but was replaced with Renner. Pine is a perfectly fine actor but he would have been wrong for this role. Renner was believable as a world weary man that has seen it all and lost a teenager daughter. Pine would have looked too young to have had a daughter who would have been 18 during the time frame of the film.
As well as a being modernization of the Western genre, Wind River is also a solid mystery. The opening showing Natalie (Kelsey Chow) running barefoot in the snow escaping her attackers is similar to the beginning of every episode of the first season of Denmark’s The Killing. Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia was also an influence on Wind River: both films are set in remote areas of America with an outsider investigator who is to acclimate to a different culture. Also like The Killing‘s there is a focus on personal drama, if more concentrated on Cody because of the case’s parallels with his daughter’s murder and a little on Natalie’s father (Gil Birmingham).
Sheridan touched on issues affecting Native American communities. Native Americans are a marginalized group and within Wind River Indian Reservation most of the people live in poverty and are unemployed, some suffer from an addiction of some sort and many of the younger members of the tribe see going to prison as a rite of passage. It’s a sad and hopeless excuse of existence. As Jane states the Native American tribal police have only six officers covering an area the size of Rhode Island and investigating the crime was made more complex because either state or federal agencies need to get involved if any aspects stray beyond Native American territory and its peoples. When researching for the film, Sheridan discovered that there was a shockingly high number of Native American women who disappear.
Wind River is a dark and grim film that can win over fans of crime thrillers and mysteries and gives the Western genre and its setting a modern twist. It is not a film for the faint hearted with its subject matter and graphic violence but it is rewarding because of it is characters and the themes about modern day Native American life.