Taylor Sheridan, screenwriter and actor, makes his directing debut with the release of the 2017 crime thriller, Wind River. Based on the true story of a Native American girl’s death in rural Wyoming, the film shows the harrowing nature of real life on the Wind River Native American Indian Reserve. Here, the crime rate is 6 times that of the national average, the poverty level is at 80%, and teenagers are statistically twice as likely to commit suicide, according to a report conducted by the New York Times in 2012. Sheridan tackles the project of conveying this gloomy, frozen wasteland through film, and succeeds with gripping results.
The subtle artistic choices made by Sheridan float so seamlessly throughout the narrative that one would easily overlook the creativity of the production in favor of the absorbing murder/mystery plot. Sheridan’s work, however, didn’t go unnoticed by critics, as he took home the Directing Prize of Un Certain Regard at the Canne’s Film Festival in 2017, a testament to the artistry of the film and the effectiveness of the meaningful message it conveys.
The movie opens with a breathtaking establishing shot of a midnight, snow-covered frontier. In the light of the large full moon overhead, a woman can be seen madly sprinting through deep snow. She sprints, her wet coughs and the howling wind the only sounds we hear, until finally she collapses motionless in the snow. As the shot remains wide, the crippling isolation of the expansive frozen wilderness makes us question why the woman is running so aggressively in such a desolate landscape, and where does she plan to go?
Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a wildlife officer who hunts pests that prey on the livestock of local farmers, discovers the woman’s frozen corpse in the outskirts of the Wind River Indian Reservation. A thick curtain of blood has cascaded and frozen from her mouth; her shoeless feet have turned sickly gray in the cold. He recognizes the Native American woman as 18-year-old Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille), who was once friends with his daughter, who went missing three years earlier. An autopsy shows that Natalie suffered a rape, ran six miles in the snow barefoot, and died when her lungs froze and burst from inhaling the sub-zero winter air while running, clearly desperate to escape from something. To investigate what appears to be a homicide, a young but tough Las Vegas FBI agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), arrives on the scene, painfully unprepared for the biting cold and unforgiving brutality of “life on the Res”. Clearly an outsider, she convinces Lambert to aid her in hunting the criminal, or criminals, responsible for the murder. They immediately plunge into a chase of spiraling madness, hoping to bring justice to Natalie and her distraught family.
As Cory and Jane dive deeper into the mystery of Natalie’s murder, they also encounter the dejected Native American residents of the reservation. Sheridan paints a portrait of the hopelessness and despair that easily consumes the reservation, smoothly commenting on the injustice of the poor living conditions and minimal commodities afforded to the residents. Many characters, including Natalie’s older brother, are seen turning to alcohol, drugs, and crime in an attempt to placate the anger of societal strains that confine them to the snowy walls of the biting Wyoming winter prison. The natives’ distrust of Jane as an outsider and the lack of urgency from her coworkers back home further emphasize this subtle theme of isolation, and continues to cause rifts throughout the movie. It is through the search of light in the midst of so much dark that unites the cooperating characters to avenge Natalie’s death.
Among the most notable creative skills Sheridan displays in Wind River is his ability to draw meaning through polarization. Colors, angles, characters, and music all pair with their own contrasting opposites, creating a powerful and dramatic dichotomy of both narrative and technical storytelling. In addition to this exercise in contrasts, the use of jump cuts and creative camera work produces effects that fully place the viewer into the rocky world of Wind River. In hunting scenes with Cory and Jane, for example, the camera switches from peaceful establishing shots of the Wyoming wilderness to close frames of handheld camerawork that show a perspective of watching the characters move from within the trees. This effect amplifies the tension of the scenes, making the audience feel as though Cory and Jane are being watched and hunted themselves by the many predatory forces, both concrete and metaphorical, at work in the film.
In the pinnacle of the plot, Sheridan culminates the best of his directing vision in a final encounter between suspected Pete (James Jordan) and Cory. Pete wakes to find himself sprawled in the snow, hands tied and barefoot, atop the highest, coldest mountain in the area. Beside him, Cory sits on a rock, patiently looking down at the sobbing man in the slush. Wearing a stark white snow suit and bathed in the blinding white light from the reflecting snow, Sheridan presents Cory in a striking Christ-like image, emphasized by the understanding that this is the final moment of judgement for Pete; Cory gently prods for the confession of Pete’s sins. “Did you rape her?” he quietly asks the hysterical man, and when Pete finally admits his crime, Cory mercifully cuts Pete’s hands free and leaves him on the mountain, providing him the same chance for survival that Natalie received. Pete doesn’t make it far.
Although the entire film is fraught with violent images of fighting, rape, and murder, perhaps the most disturbing moment comes in the final 45 seconds in the form of 19 black words, projected over the frame of Cory and Natalie’s father (Gil Birmingham) sitting in silent memorial of their daughters. The words read, “Native American women are the only population without any record of missing people. Nobody knows how many are missing.” With these final chilling facts, the screen cuts to black, and the viewer is left questioning the state of humanity and the overlooked injustice of Native American life. Framing the entire 107 previous minutes of the film in an utterly jaw dropping and terrifying new light, the true story of Natalie Hanson’s murder seems utterly meaningless knowing that her death, and subsequently her life, have no statistical significance in the American public.
Even though only his first directing debut, Sheridan, much to the credit of finding a story crucial to the American public, crafts a motivational creative vision begging for active change on the behalf of a grotesquely unrepresented minority. Wind River no doubt will stand as a chilling cinematic allegory for generations to come.