A young woman runs across an empty, snow-covered tract of land, the moon shining cold and unforgiving above her. She stumbles, coughing blood into the pure white ground beneath her. A title card states that this film is inspired by true events before fading to black.
So begins Taylor Sheridan’s neo-Western thriller Wind River. Following the discovery of a body on a young woman in the wilderness of the Wind River Indian Reservation, local Fish and Wildlife agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) teams up with rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to solve the murder.
From the outset of the film the reservation is constructed as a place of survival rather than habitation – no one is living there, simply surviving. Those who have had opportunities have left, many of those who have stayed have fallen prey to drug and alcohol addiction in the wilderness of winter. There is also an entirely understandable hostility to the outside world – a US flag hangs upside down as you enter the rez, and Jane Banner is treated with barely concealed contempt as the representation of the US government that has mistreated the Native American population for centuries.
Ben Richardson’s cinematography captures the wide, unfriendly vistas – never ending space that leads to nowhere and that contains and restricts the inhabitants rather than allow them to roam. There is a sense of hopelessness that pervades all who live there – and Jane Banner’s refusal to abandon the death of Natalie Hanson comes as a surprise to a people who are used to dealing with their issues alone.
Elizabeth Olsen shines in a the role of a young, yet determined agent who refuses to let the mystery of Natalie’s death go unanswered – despite her naivety of the situation she is dealing with, she persists, through hostility, pepper-spray and danger. The cast of Native American actors also shine through, from the placid tribal police chief Ben Shoyo (Graham Greene), the grieving and angry Martin Hanson (Gil Birmingham – displaying a fearsome range of rage and sorrow in one expression) and Chip Hanson, broken by the isolation of the rez (Martin Sensmeier).
Sheridan moves swiftly between the stillness of the rez and moments of extreme violence with ease. A flashback scene showing Natalie’s final few hours has one of the most sinister examples of shot reverse-shot in recent cinema, capturing the underlying danger that runs throughout the film.
It’s not an easy watch by any means, but a strong and powerful condemnation of the issue of missing and murdered Native women in the US and Canada and a vicious yet intriguing thriller that will stick with you for a long while after watching.