Wind River (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Wind River (2017)

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Cory Lambert, on the hunt for predators in an Arapaho reservation, discovers the body of woman raped then left for dead in the freezing terrain.  Jane Banner arrives from the FBI to investigate the crime, trying to work her way through the reservation's suspicion of outsiders and the men hindering her efforts.  Taylor Sheridan wrote the screenplay for and directs Wind River, and stars Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen.

When I reviewed Blade Runner 2049, I ended by questioning why men feel it necessary to advance artistically by making stories of men abusing women.  There was a point in my reviewing career where I applauded the self-awareness.  But the absence of women, particularly marginalized women of color, behind the scenes is becoming more noticeable with these films by the day.  Now comes Wind River, lacking many of the metaphorical and cinematic outs of Blade Runner 2049, and the gendered complications - while ostensibly the focus - are scattered amid stories of manly men feeling things.

I don't say this as a dismissal but more a succinct appraisal of writer/director Taylor Sheridan's skill.  He's got a deft hand when it comes to the emotional shorthand men use as a way to keep more sensitive sides of themselves locked up.  You can see this in Benicio del Toro's role in the Sheridan-penned Sicario, or the brother relationship at the center of Hell or High Water.  This results in Sheridan getting amazing performances from the supporting cast of Wind River, especially Gil Birmingham as Martin, the Arapaho father of Natalie (Kelsey Chow) who we see running across a frozen lake in the opening shots.

The "out of her element" aspects of Wind River are a bit much, and putting Jane in a position where she has to disrobe to get into her element is a disappointing turn.

This translates to a recurring sight in Wind River of Cory (Jeremy Renner) standing ramrod tall isolated on the left or right sides of the screen while letting other men vent their emotions or trying to get information out of men.  It's the visual equivalent of Cory getting men to level with him, presenting him as a pillar of support, and men take him up on those opportunities more often than not.  As visual characterization goes it's a touch too perfect, much like the rest of Cory's writing which presents him as above most of the sexist attacks directed at FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen.)  There's great little details, like a quick lesson Cory gives his son on gun discipline, but it shows Sheridan is fully on the side of the rugged frontiersman by making Cory a near perfect moral character.

Which brings me to my greatest beef with Wind River - how Jane is shot and written compared to the other men.  There's a touch of racial resentment between the Arapaho living on the reservation and the white interloper too dumb to dress properly for the cold.  This is well-realized, particularly in Birmingham's quietly lacerating dialogue and performance, culminating in a sort of slap to Jane's senses with, "Why is it when you people want to help it starts with insults."  It cuts straight to the point of how white Americans assume so much of the native population, and how even those who want to help don't realize the patronizing attitude they're taking.

I'm less enamored with the way Sheridan sexualizes Jane.  As Jane gets ready for a trek in the snow his camera cuts to her thong-clad bottom as an older Arapaho woman says, "Thermals can make underwear wedge up your bottom - I guess yours are already there."  A similar shot occurs later, during a flashback showing white security personnel raping Natalie.  In isolation, the earlier shot with Jane could have been thrown off as a culture clash.  Paired with the similar shot of Natalie it takes on more sinister undertones and poses a likely unintentional "Was she asking for it" question as the man who rapes Natalie accuses her of flashing her butt around.

With one shot Jane is reduced to a plane of dignity lower than Clarice Starling in 1991's The Silence of the Lambs.  Much like science fiction can't seem to escape the pull of Ridley, crime thrillers have to put in a scene of a woman learning to meekly assert her authority over a situation boiling over with masculinity like Clarice.  I'm not going to say things have gotten better since 1991 as our cultural moment shows our problems with sexist abuse in entertainment and justice are barely being addressed.  But on a creative level, it's disappointing Sheridan can't think of anything to do with Jane that is less dignifying than decades-old films tackling similar tensions.

Gil Birmingham's supporting work in Wind River distills decades of distrust and pain into a quietly lacerating performance.

Wind River feels like a second draft filmed with the confidence of a final.  There are awkward interludes, such as the flashback showing Natalie's rape, inserted jarringly with little idea from whose point of view we're watching the events.  Same for a gunfight that erupts so soon after Jane is able to assert her authority for the first and last time.  It does even more harm for Jane's credibility as a character, undone by a shotgun blast instead of the web of structural weights that kept Sicario's lead from doing her job.  The reasoning by the bad guys is even spottier, amounting to, "Men gotta be men and it's cold here."

This isn't a bad film so much as it is a disappointing one, and my disappointment is rooted in trends outside Wind River's narrative.  But Wind River didn't occur in a vacuum, and despite Sheridan's considerable talent he's susceptible to the same narrative shorthand for sexism that makes Cory so noble and Jane so ineffectual.  There's an excellent film here when Sheridan focuses on the tensions between the Arapaho and Birmingham is so good I can't tell you to skip it.  I hope Sheridan's next feature returns to the nuance of his previous while women get the opportunity to tell their own stories without the need of a male filter.

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Wind River (2017)

Screenplay written and directed by Taylor Sheridan.
Starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen.

Posted by Andrew

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