When a barefooted body of an 18 year old girl is found deep in the frozen wasteland of wintertime Montana by ace tracker/hunter/badass Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner – Captain America: Civil War) the FBI is called in. Rookie Special Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen – Captain America: Civil War) arrives as the vanguard of a potential team of investigators. But when the cause of death is ruled as exposure and not rape/assault as suspected, the FBI pull the plug, leaving Banner, Lambert and police chief Ben Shoyo (Graham Greene – Dances with Wolves) to track down the killers alone. You better believe it ain’t gonna be pretty.
Cory Lambert is a cowboy hat-wearing man’s man. As a US Fish and Wildlife ranger he’s effectively a modern day Aragorn, only armed with a hunting rifle instead of a bow. He isn’t a king either, but we’re introduced to him in a pretty badass way; he nonchalantly shoots down some wolves which are stalking a local pack of sheep, and that’s before he has any breakfast. Outside of work he’s a well respected member of the community too. The folk of the Wind River Indian Reservation see him as a kindred spirit, though that may be due to fact he married into the tribe so to speak; his ex-wife Wilma is a native.
Things aren’t exactly frosty between them but there’s certainly some old wounds still festering. Lots of unspoken shit. Their son, Casey, is in the throes of learning stuff about horses and hunting and so forth from his Dad when they come across the body and everything kicks off. It sucks because it’s their weekend together, and potentially their last too as Wilma is looking good for a new job in a town far away. Cory is happy for her even if it will mean he loses his son for the most part. He still loves her enough to want her to be happy, regardless of how much it sucks for him.
When they stumble across the body Cory doesn’t have to check her wallet to figure out who she is. He recognizes the daughter of a close family friend by sight. What he can’t compute though is how young Natalie Hanson could be at least six miles from the closest building, with no winter gear and no shoes. Her feet are blue with frost bite and her face a bloody mess. Tellingly her groin is blood-soaked too. She was running from something, something with bad intentions intent on finishing whatever job it had started.
This is clearly too much for the resident tribal police chief Ben. While he’s no pushover, his days are usually comprised of domestics and the odd drink & drug busts. While his ancestors may have used some kind of tracking magic or whatnot to point them in the direction of the killers, Ben is more modern than traditional. He’s traded his sacred tomahawk for cigarettes and coffee. No, the FBI is gonna have to come in on this one and the only body they got within a thousand miles is young agent Banner.
Turning up to the scene in high heels ain’t gonna cut it though. But what she lacks in winter prep she more than makes up for in determination. Olsen plays her like Scully from the X-Files. Straight down the middle in terms of procedure, but rigid and tough with an iron resolve that ain’t gonna bend for anybody. A crime has been committed here. A girl was raped and fled for over six miles barefoot in the snow and you better believe Agent Banner won’t rest until someone answers for that.
But she’s gonna be without the help of her bureau buddies on this one as the coroner can’t file it as a homicide. It’s sort of petty but you can’t blame him on the other hand. Lambert had already called it back on the scene – at super low temperatures the lungs begin to hemorrhage internally, filling with blood. Poor Natalie fled for her life only to choke to death on her own blood. So technically, no she wasn’t murdered. Yes, there are signs of rape and head trauma, but they can’t say by who or by how many. Looks like they’re gonna have to lean on some old fashioned police work to crack this one.
Banner plays hardball with Natalie’s parents. It’s only when she finds the mother slitting her own wrists does she realize she’s a chosen the wrong approach. They really have no idea what the hell happened to their daughter. Thankfully the father, Martin (Gil Birmingham – Lone Ranger) will speak with Lambert. They go way back. He confides that his life is now over, with his son a doped up crackhead and little girl dead and soon to be in the ground. He makes Cory swear he’ll find whichever bastard did this and to make it a hard death. Lambert certainly seems to be up to the task and as we find that his own daughter was murdered three years ago we begin to understand not only why his family broke up but why he’s so invested in the case. Martin’s plea only ups the ante on a runaway train journey to revengeville that Cory Lambert is happy to take a ride on.
Where too next though? Martin knew Natalie had a boyfriend, but she never told her old Daddy the gory details. She was 18 after all and her own woman. But she may have told her brother, Chip (Martin Sensmeier – Magnificent Seven). She always had a soft spot for him, despite being a total screw up.
Chip is holed up in a trailer park with a couple other junkies. Chief Ben busted em all a few times and he’s rightfully dubious that they’re gonna prove anything but useless. True to form things quickly turn south when one of Chip’s buddies Frank Walker gets too jumpy and pepper sprays Ben and Banner. Fleeing out the back, Lambert easily ambushes Chip, but Banner gets into a full blown shootout inside the trailer with Walker. Partially blind, it’s only her training that see’s her through. I saw shades of Silence of the Lambs in this sequence, specifically where trainee FBI cadet Clarice (Jodie Foster – Elysium) is chasing murderous Buffalo Bill through his pitch black basement. You can tell she’s shitting bricks, but that hardwired muscle-memory is forcing her hand, guiding her movements and keeping her alive.
Here Banner is in similar danger despite backup being outside. But when it comes down to it she doesn’t hesitate. She may have turned up to the crime scene in heels and a business suit and she may have rubbed the grieving family the wrong way, but damnit she’s not gonna be taken out by some meth-freak in a stinking caravan. She doesn’t even get all misty eyed when she’s staring down at his still-breathing body. Both she and Ben watch as he dies slowly, painfully. All over a misunderstanding. They thought the cops were here for a bust. Chip is devastated to hear about his sister and it’s clear that he didn’t know beforehand.
Banner is keen to sweat Chip to see exactly what he does know however. Lambert isn’t convinced. What’s piqued his curiosity is a sled track running near the camp. Night is falling and the snow is coming down, so he’s gonna follow it into the woods with or without her. Throwing the text book to the wolves, she heads off with him. True enough the tracks lead them to an even greater mystery. A body. Naked and ravaged by wildlife, it’s gonna be hard to get an ID. But it’s gotta be related. Maybe they should have a chat with Chip after all.
While it ain’t exactly by the book, Lambert manages to coax some useful info out of Chip, and it only takes one head-being-smashed-onto-car-glovebox moment to get the truth juices flowing. Chip admits that Natalie was seeing an older guy called Matt. The only other thing he knows was that he worked security on one of those mining rigs way out in the boonies. Curiously, one such rig lies within the six mile radius of where Natalie was running. Looks like we got our man.
A spanner is thrown in the works though when the DNA for that unidentified body comes back as Matt Rayburn. Who’d want an ex-military security contractor and his 18 year old girlfriend killed? Heading down there with the full police force (three extra guys), things quickly get tense. They claim Matt had a big argument with Natalie three days ago, and she ran out on him. He left to find her and hasn’t been back since. Makes sense I guess. But why do a few of these security dudes have black eyes and cuts on their faces…
Wind River is a slow burn sort of movie. As a neo-Western you get plenty of men and women trying to save face by not speaking or showing emotion. There’s still lots of stuff going on beneath the surface, we can see that, even if the dialogue can be a bit sparse. But like blood on snow, when the quiet solemness is disturbed and broken, whatever is happening becomes even more prominent and impacting. It’s almost akin to a slow ramp up to a scare/jump moment in a horror movie, only here we don’t know from who or where the scares are coming. It could be a gun shot or a grown man bursting into tears, either way it disturbs the peace and keeps us on edge.
Thankfully, director Taylor Sheridan (writer of the dynamite Sicario) manages to wrestle fantastic performances from each of the more-than-capable stars despite the thin dialogue. Olsen infuses her rookie agent with an inner strength that see’s her through a brutal case, despite the fact she’s well aware she’s in too deep. Equally, Renner is believable as the bushmaster tracker. He’s certainly no Crocodile Dundee, but still a badass. Because he’s in a lot of popcorn cheese these days people forget that he’s an Oscar-nominated actor. He can pull this shit off when the material is right. I found it enjoyable playing this sort of dual role of cowboy and Indian, whereby he has the hat, the horse and the guns, but knows the “ways” of old world too.
Running back-up for the two leads are a strong support cast, propped up by the ever capable Graham Greene. He’s like the good-guy ying to Wes Studi’s (Hostiles) bad-guy yang. Here he’s the likable if pessimistic police chief. Also turning up is Jon Bernthal (Fury) as Matt (in flash back scenes only, obviously) who plays his bread and butter – a hard-ass ex military type with a short fuse. How our perception of his character shifts during one pivotal scene is masterfully done, and while a small part, it’s certainly heavy hitting.
There is commentary running throughout Wind River, specifically about the continued degradation and plight of the Native people. We’re told that this is inspired on true events, and while the story and characters are all works of fiction, the scenario has likely repeated itself numerous times. The film is book-ended with with a statement about how Native American women are the only demographic where records are not kept for missing persons. Damning stuff.
However, a thought did occur to me that this is a film about the maltreatment of Native women (and the culture in general), yet it is only the likes of Renner and Olsen whom can right those ills. There are no positive Native voices to be heard, and even the great Graham Greene seems powerless or uninterested to fight the good fight. This is just an observation though, and one that is fleeting. Strip away the sociological commentary and you still have a cracking film though. As much as Wind River is making a statement, it’s not ramming it down our throats. It’s primary goal is to tell a story. Everything else is secondary.
It’s not a twisting and turning thrill-ride of investigatory Sherlock moments where vital clues are gleaned from obscure evidence. In fact it’s quite procedural. They simply follow their noses which leads them to the violent finale. But we spend time sifting through the debris of each lead. As Lambert points out, the tracks being covered by fresh snow is there only time limit. Perhaps Nature herself is conspiring to cover up the crime, as if she was complicit in the murders.
Beautifully shot by Ben Richardson, someone more at home shooting urban movies, it’s nice to see such a grim movie cast in unyielding hues of white. Scored by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, the music is slight, yet purposeful. There’s nothing flashy or what I’d consider slick at play here. It’s all very solid and real, much like a western of old. Only there are no heroic stand offs. Bad things happen to good people, even our heroes.
Despite that guilty consciously pulsing throughout the movie, I enjoyed the hell out of Wind River. A simple and meaningful story well executed, it demonstrates that an A-list Marvel crew can shed the jokes, costumes and silly names when they need too, and still blow it out of the park. Some scenes are uncomfortable viewing but this isn’t a movie that should make you feel totally comfortable. It’s cold, bleak and magnificent. Get it watched.