Life is hard in the barren wilderness of Wyoming's Wind River Indian Reservation. Isolation—born of geography, climate, race and economics—leads to hopelessness for many of the Native Americans who live there. Crime and drug abuse abound. Both are more plentiful than the handful of reservation police officers there who must police a parcel of land bigger than Rhode Island.
Bad things tend to happen at Wind River. And often, the anonymous and impoverished victims of those bad things simply disappear, almost like the wind itself, as forgotten as the desperate people who eke out an existence there.
Natalie Hanson might have been one of the forgotten, had not U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert accidentally come across her frozen, bloodied corpse deep in the Wyoming wilderness. Cory recognizes her immediately: Natalie was his daughter's best friend, after all—his daughter who was similarly murdered three years before.
Natalie's identity, then, is not a mystery. How she ended up beaten and dead in the middle of a frozen forest is.
The tribal police usually deal with crime on the reservation, a place where U.S. law enforcement has no legal jurisdiction. Except, that is, in the case of murder. When homicide is suspected, the case in question becomes the FBI's responsibility.
So it's not long before a regional FBI agent arrives to begin her investigation. Jane Banner is as spunky as she is young and naive. She's determined to identify Natalie's killer (or killers), to do things by the book, to do things right. But the Fort Lauderdale native has never encountered a world as bleak and brutal as the one she finds at Wind River, a place where optimism and idealism go to die.
Wind River may as well be a foreign country. And in some ways, it is. To solve the riddle of Natalie's murder, she's going to need an insider's help, the kind only Cory can provide
Cory's willing to put his considerable hunting and tracking skills to work for Jane. But doing so will come at a great cost to him: facing his own aching grief once more, and trying one last time to come to terms with questions about his own daughter's murder that have no satisfying answers.
Cory and Jane (with the help of a tribal police chief named Ben) work doggedly to solve the mystery of Natalie's murder, even as their investigation becomes increasingly dangerous to everyone involved. Their determination is admirable, as both have significant personal obstacles to overcome.
Jane is shocked (and nearly killed several times) by how functionally lawless the Wind River Indian Reservation is. At one point, she asks Ben if they should get backup before confronting a potentially violent suspect. The police chief responds, "This isn't a land of backup, Jane. This is a land of you're on your own." Gradually, Jane's forced into come to terms with a level of injustice and cruelty she's never witnessed before. But as she does so, her resolve to discover what happened to Natalie grows stronger. "I appreciate your passion," Ben tells her sincerely at one point. "It's not the feds' usual response."
Cory, for his part, has to deal the tragic death of his own 15-year-old daughter, Emily, all over again. Several times, he talks about how he's sought to hold onto his cherished memories of her while relinquishing his rage and his demand for answers. It's clear his initial response to her death torpedoed his marriage to a woman (from the reservation) named Wilma. It's equally clear that he's haunted (metaphorically speaking) by what's happened, but those events also fuel his determination to find Natalie's killers.
Cory's tragedy helps him empathize with and try to help Natalie's father, Martin, who is on the verge of despair following her murder. (The man's wife is utterly undone as well, but the film doesn't focus on her as much.) Corey talks about how a grief counselor once told him that there's good news and bad news when it comes to loss. "The bad news is that it's never going to be the same." The good news? "As soon as you accept that … you'll remember all the love she gave, all the joy."
The Fish and Game agent has a similarly difficult conversation with Martin's drug-addicted son, Chip, who laments the hardship of life on the reservation. "It's this place, man. Look what it takes from us." Cory tries to challenge him to make better choices and to let go of his victimhood, which prompts Chip to respond angrily, "You think this is who I wanted to be? Man, I get so mad. I wanna fight the whole world. You got any idea what that feels like?" Cory responds, "I do. I decided to fight the feelings instead."
Despite Corey and Wilma's divorce, Corey's still trying to be the best dad possible to their young son, Casey. Corey teaches Casey about gun safety ("A gun's always loaded, even if it ain't"), as well as how to deal with an unpredictable horse his grandfather owns ("You gotta earn his respect. You know how you do that? By standing your ground"). Wilma tries to convince her husband that even if he solves Natalie's murder, it won't be enough to deal with the ache, loss and desire for answers he still has for their deceased daughter, Emily. "You won't get the answers you're looking for, no matter what you find."
Cory eventually tells Jane the story of how his daughter died. Cory and Wilma were having a weekend away, and Emily ended up having a party at their house that got out of control and ended up with her rape and murder. "We tried to be very careful with Emily," Cory says. "We tried to plan for everything. She was such a good girl. But we let our guard down. … You cannot blink. Not once. Not here."
On a bigger thematic level, Wind River strives to give viewers a sense of the desperation, poverty, addiction, violence and hopelessness that it suggests pervade this Native American Indian reservation—and perhaps all of them. Those social ills aren't positive things, obviously. But the moviemakers want us to see that glaring need for justice in a place the movie depicts as a forgotten wasteland full of the silent suffering of those doomed to live there. In that sense, Jane functions as an innocent stand-in for the rest us, and that innocence is shaken by what she witnesses. (I'll return to this important idea in the Conclusion.)
Someone describes being on the reservation as being "back in hell again." Winter there is also called "a frozen hell." Passing reference is made to a Christian mass as a Spanish mission.
A flashback shows Natalie in bed with her boyfriend, Matt, a security contractor at a remote oil rig near the reservation. He's shirtless, she's got a camisole on. They're clearly planning on spending the night together when about half a dozen of Matt's coworkers unexpectedly return to find the couple in bed.
Things take a very grim turn at that point …
… as the men mock and harass Matt and Natalie, becoming more aggressive and making suggestive comments about her. Matt tries to protect her, decking the main aggressor, a guy named Pete. From there, things spiral quickly into brutal, sexualized violence.
Matt's beaten savagely and knocked out. Pete yanks Natalie from bed and hits her. An ensuing rape scene includes explicit motions and reveals some of her exposed body (mostly her backside). Matt awakens long enough to launch one more attack. Natalie runs, wearing only lingerie and bloodied from the assault, into the wilderness.
Cory eventually finds her frozen body. We later hear a detailed coroner's report about how she died (frozen lungs). Scenes in the morgue very briefly picture her corpse (including some pubic hair). The coroner graphically describes the damage the rape did to Natalie's genitals.
Elsewhere, multiple characters are shot (some wounded, many killed) in a lengthy gun battle. Two people get bear repellent sprayed in their faces. Jane repeatedly shoots and kills a man who's high on drugs and threatening her. She's unexpectedly shot herself but protected by her bulletproof vest.
Jane checks on Martin's grieving wife, who's in the her bedroom quietly weeping after Natalie's murder. The woman is cutting her arms and wrists repeatedly with a razor as she cries, and her arm is covered with cuts and blood; Jane is stunned and closes the door. Later, Martin is on the verge of committing suicide (he calls his painted visage his "death face") when his son, Chip, calls and he decides not to go through with it. He's still sitting outside with a gun when Cory comes to the house.
Cory finds Natalie's frozen bloodied corpse (which we see) and that of her boyfriend, Matt (which we don't really see.). Cory shoots a coyote. There's talk of mountain lions killing livestock.
[Spoiler Warning] Cory eventually pursues Pete, who's been wounded in the aforementioned shootout, into the wilderness. Cory doesn't kill Pete outright, but he does knock him out with his gun butt. While the man is unconscious, Cory takes his boots and socks off. When Pete awakens, Corey essentially condemns him to death: "I'm going to give you the same chance [Natalie] had." Natalie, we've already heard, walked six miles, barefoot, through the snow after being raped before she succumbed to the elements. "You?" Cory asks, "You may make it 600 feet. … I want you to run." And so Pete does, soon collapsing and dying in the frigid cold as Cory watches.
Crude or Profane Language
More than 30 uses of the f-word, two of which are paired with "mother," one of which is linked to Jesus' name. About 10 s-words. God's name is taken in vain four or five times, once paired with "d--n." "A--" and "a--hole" are used five times each. We also hear a handful of uses of "h-ll" and "d--n," and one each of "p---y" and the racial slur "cracker."
Drug and Alcohol Content
Several different characters are shown to be very drunk, stoned on drugs, or both. We see empty beer bottles in someone's home.
Other Negative Elements
Jane vomits after being sprayed in the face with bear repellent.
Wind River is a hard movie that gives viewers a glimpse into a hard place. An early scene shows Cory hunting rogue coyotes. That suggestion—that there are predators and there is prey—keeps turning up throughout this painful story. Wyoming's Wind River Indian Reservation is depicted here as a place where the vulnerable are at the mercy of the strong and hungry. Too often, the film tells us, the defenseless victims in that dynamic are young women.
Wind River begins with a screen that says, "Inspired by Actual Events." At the end of the film, we're told that Native American women are the only demographic category of missing persons that the federal government doesn't track. The feds, the movie suggests, have no idea how many young women may have been preyed upon, raped, murdered and discarded in this impoverished subculture.
It's a sobering message, to be sure, but one that the filmmakers clearly hope resonates with viewers in such a way that it might spur some kind of national focus on the nameless victims of these horrific crimes.
Whether we need to witness those dramatized horrors firsthand ourselves, as we do here, is another important question however, one that anyone considering seeing this hard-R movie will need to consider carefully before purchasing a ticket to it.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Jeremy Renner as Cory Lambert; Elizabeth Olsen as Jane Banner; Julia Jones as Wilma Lambert; Gil Birmingham as Martin Hanson; Jon Bernthal as Matt; Kelsey Chow as Natalie Hanson; Graham Greene as Ben; Martin Sensmeier as Chip Hanson; James Jordan as Pete Mickens; Eric Lange as Dr. Whitehurst; Ian Bohen as Evan; Hugh Dillon as Curtis; Matthew Del Negro as Dillon; Teo Briones as Casey Lambert; Tantoo Cardinal as Mrs. Hanson
Taylor Sheridan ( )
The Weinstein Company
August 4, 2017