review by paul dunne
Wind River opens with the mysterious death of a young woman in the sparse, snow covered landscape on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Her corpse is found by local US Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory (Jeremy Renner) while he is tracking mountain lions. FBI agent Jane (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives to take the case. Being far out of her depth with the harsh conditions and even harsher people, she sways Cory to help her find answers.
The film’s plots, themes, and aesthetic are often at odds with each other. The film presents a tense, atmospheric mystery, a series of dramatic character studies, violent and vivid action, personal, revenge narratives and social commentary about the plight of Native Americans living in dire circumstances. Each aspect or thread is executed well, but they never interweave properly.
The film’s biggest strengths are the mood and atmosphere, created by its strange cinematography and sound design. From the offset, there is a cold and bleak aesthetic, which bleeds into the locals’ hardened pride. Some warmth and charm is injected by Jane’s out-of-place optimism and the use of non-diegetic poetry readings. The action sequences are notably stylised, emphasising shock and disorientation rather than clarity of view or high octane occasions. I find this choice strange but satisfying. Once acclimated, this style of action adds to the overlapping themes of survival and hunting, portrayed in particular by Cory’s demeanour and dialogue.
Problems arrive from the abruptness of certain moments of the film. Action set pieces occur with little lead up, providing frights akin to a horror film rather than the twists and turns expected of a thriller. Tension lapses in certain scenes, where personality and emotion make way for pure exposition and characterisation. Approaching what would be the climactic and closing scenes, I applauded the film for its restraint in not forcing two single leads into a romance. Only to find the penultimate scene doing just that. The final scene itself is also problematic. A heartfelt, hopeful moment is interrupted by text appearing on screen informing us of the ongoing crisis of unaccounted for missing Native American women. This final moment of redemption and optimism is needlessly undercut, undermining both the scene itself and the message of the text.
The characters are well realised with their motivations and actions being earned and justified; the dialogue is exciting and dour when needs be; performances are fantastic all round from the top billing actors to those filling bit parts. Clichés and stereotypes are largely, thankfully avoided and the camerawork, while unusual at times is effective. Despite all these elements being well executed individually, they ultimately do not mesh well. Wind River is a thoroughly entertaining, enjoyable film on a surface level but beneath the polish unavoidable problems lie.