Wind River almost defies genre definition. It’s ultimately a murder mystery thriller but it’s also a drama about family, loss, suffering, respect, and compassion.
Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario, Hell or High Water), Wind River takes place at the Wind River Native American Reservation in the mountains of Wyoming. In an interview with NPR, Sheridan explains that the motivation for writing the “inspired by true events” film, came from an inability to find any statistics on sexual assault and disappearances of women from reservations. The injustice they suffer by being ignored by practically every government group is summed up in the chilling words at the end of the film: “While missing persons statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women.”
The story is told through the eyes of Cory Lambert (an awesome Jeremy Renner) who works for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service getting rid of lions and wolves that prey on livestock. He’s an expert tracker and knows the mountains like the back of his hand. At work one day, he discovers footprints and, following them, finds the body of a young woman, Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), his deceased daughter’s best friend. She’s been raped and beaten, finally dying from breathing the sub-zero air into her lungs as she fled her attackers.
Sent to investigate is Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), a rookie FBI agent from the Las Vegas field office. It only takes moments to realize she’s way out of her league when she shows up in high heels and a windbreaker. After borrowing winter gear from the locals, she hops on the back of Cory’s snowmobile and goes to see the body. Realizing that she needs help, she enlists Cory and his abilities as a tracker to aid her with the investigation.
Wind River is not the easiest movie to watch. The flashback scene showing the crime is brutally violent and the resultant desire for revenge in Cory and Martin (Gil Birmingham), Natalie’s father, makes one’s heart ache for them.
The true gems of the film come not from the solving of the mystery itself but from the people and relationships that develop and shine throughout the ordeal. You have Cory. Three years ago his daughter was murdered and the case was never solved. He’s separated from his Native American wife (Julia Jones) and still grieves for his daughter. He visits Martin to offer comfort to his good friend. Their conversation about the suffering caused by the death of one’s child is beautifully insightful and one of the most impressive film speeches I’ve heard about redemptive suffering without explicitly mentioning God.
Then you have Jane, an outsider on the reservation who genuinely wants justice for Natalie. The fact that the FBI only sent her indicates that justice for Martin and his family is not high on their priority list. Still, Jane never gives up. Surrounded by tough mountain men, she learns how to hold her own, exercising the authority of her position. By treating everyone involved with the respect they deserve, Jane earns their respect as well.
The word compassion means “to suffer with.” Cory’s own experiences enable him to exhibit true compassion and he does precisely that. When a grieving Martin has no words to explain how he feels, he asks Cory to just sit with him. Cory says, “I can do that” and his reassuring presence comforts Martin. Cory has worked through his own grief and come out on the other side with a heart that not only shows true compassion but also feels genuine empathy for his friend. It’s a heart that doesn’t deny it’s suffering, but uses that suffering, not to fold in on itself, but to reach out and embrace the suffering of others in sincere compassion.