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Wind River isn’t Identity Politics in War Paint

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By Walter Donway

September 24, 2017

 

My hypothesis from what I knew about the film, and as the film began, was that Wind River was an indictment of United States’ treatment of Native Americans and their reservations. And so, it would remain a limited circulation film enjoyed by connoisseurs of cultural exploitation theory, limited to theaters like this one in Amherst.

This weekend in Amherst, MA, with my wife, for a big family gathering, I caught Wind River, a new film released by The Weinstein Company. Who cares where we saw it? Well, walking through the charming town, I noticed three churches that adorned their facades with huge banners: “Black Lives Matter.” This is the land of academic Postmodernism, with elite colleges such as Amherst, Smith, and Mt. Holyoke, along with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The town, by the way, is packed with svelte young Asian girls—almost in herds—because their newly wealthy Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and other Asian families can foot the bill and the kids can outcompete almost any group for admission.

Somehow not surprisingly, Amherst has a beautiful theater complex devoted to “art” films, “classic” films, “experimental” films—and, yes, racial and ethnic “identity” films. It was not unexpected to encounter Wind River, a film that had its premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival and began in relatively few theaters.

Wind River is a region of Wyoming where the river has its headwaters in Lake Wind River in the Rocky Mountains and flows some 185 miles southeastward through Wind River Basin and—here we close in on the film—the Wind River Indian Reservation. The reservation, the seventh largest in the United States, comprises 3.5-million square miles with a population density of about two families per square mile. And that includes about 50 percent whites, who eventually were permitted to settle in a few places in the vast empty reaches.

My verdict is that Wind River portrays the bitter realities of the reservation, but only where relevant to the story—a thriller, really—which focuses intensely upon character, some of the genuinely toughest “good guys” we have seen in a long time.

This reservation, granted in 1868 to the remnants of the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes, has been plagued with the problems that affect all reservations: unemployment, rampant alcoholism, drug epidemics, and violent crime. My hypothesis from what I knew about the film, and as the film began, was that Wind River was an indictment of United States’ treatment of Native Americans and their reservations. And so, it would remain a limited circulation film enjoyed by connoisseurs of cultural exploitation theory, limited to theaters like this one in Amherst.

My verdict is that Wind River portrays the bitter realities of the reservation, but only where relevant to the story—a thriller, really—which focuses intensely upon character, some of the genuinely toughest “good guys” we have seen in a long time. And that, apparently, is the verdict of viewers, too, because Wind River, released August 4 in relatively few theaters, expanded exponentially weekend-by-weekend to become the number three highest-grossing film.

I am over 70, so I guess I can conclude that I never tire of tough guys who quietly do their job, do the right thing, and speak a blunt poetry about what matters in life.

Jeremy Renner, a two-time Academy award nominee, plays a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hunter and tracker, Cory Lambert, who efficiently blows away wolves, mountain lions, and other predators on reservation sheep and cattle herds. When out on a hunt for mountain lions in the reservation’s wilderness mountains (roaring, bouncing, daredevil snowmobile rides are a kind of recurring rhythm of this film) he discovers the frozen body of a beautiful 18-year-old Shoshone girl who, autopsy shows, was sexually assaulted and fled barefoot and half-clad to run literally miles beneath the winter moon in sub-zero, crystalline snow, eventually to die of burst lungs.

Wind River is at once a hunt for the killers; a portrayal of how proud Indian families who have nothing must mourn the loss of even their children; a glimpse of men driven half-mad by the vast frozen wilderness and its icy silence; and, above all, what it takes in terms of character to survive here.

The latter point becomes central when rookie FBI agent, Jane Banner, played by luscious blond Elizabeth Olsen, comes speeding breathlessly onto the scene because the FBI has jurisdiction over capital crimes on Indian reservations. Little that she has learned, thus far, prepares her for what Tribal Police Chief Ben, hunter Cory Lambert, and others on the reservation already know. Lambert becomes her partner in the search for the killers and her mentor in what it means truly to take responsibility for your survival.

Pleasures of this film, for me, are the Wyoming winter landscape; the relationship between Cory and Jane; the unstinting toughness of those who still love the reservation; and the drama of the film’s scenes of flat-out violence when the tribal officers and FBI agent Banner go about the investigation. I cannot recall a serious portrayal of shootout violence (the laurels for ‘comic’ shootout horror go to the slaughter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) that surpasses Wind River for capturing the essentially chaotic, arbitrary, and terrifying progress of a firefight.

Perhaps Wind River is prevailing at the box office because it is, as Wikipedia categorizes it, a “neo-western murder mystery thriller” and keeps faith with that unfailingly popular genre. The men are strong and true, the women are bold and loyal, the setting is yearningly vast, and justice will not prevail against evil until the day of the guns.

Perhaps Wind River is prevailing at the box office because it is, as Wikipedia categorizes it, a “neo-western murder mystery thriller” and keeps faith with that unfailingly popular genre. The men are strong and true, the women are bold and loyal, the setting is yearningly vast, and justice will not prevail against evil until the day of the guns.

Elizabeth Olsen is radiant, brave, and pure—and alluring even with her face spattered with droplets of blood—but Jeremy Renner is among the most credible of the tough guys in today’s cinema. Americans adore the tough guys because still in our historical memory they stand for the only source of justice over chaotic violence.
 

Spoiler Alert: The rest of the review contains spoilers
 

The most painful scene in Wind River—and one on which you would be justified in taking a “pass”—is when Nathalie Harmon, a sweetly adorable 18-year-old Shoshone girl, is lying in bed with her boyfriend, cuddling, and talking about their future, when four very drunk men burst in. An agonizing scene of provocation and testing ends with over-the-top violence, sexual and otherwise. It is from this scene that Nathalie escapes while the men are beating to death her boyfriend. Half-naked, she runs for miles beneath a cruel moonlit landscape of frozen snow until her lungs burst and she dies in the snow.

It shouldn’t happen to anyone, but what if it happens where law enforcement is one leathery old tribal police chief, one rookie FBI agent who comes under-dressed to the assignment, and a guy whose solitary life has had one purpose: to drop animal predators? United by intolerance of the slaughter of innocents, they join forces beyond regulations and job titles, and pursue the predators-on-man. The day comes when guns reply to guns. Some die, some fall wounded, some are left standing to finish the job. That, of course, includes Cory Lambert, whose hunting rifle booms from the snowy hills to decide the fight.

There is much more in Wind River, and it is about how the tough men and women keep a grip, at least sometimes, on their humanity. In one scene that moved me, the FBI agent confronts a frozen-faced Shoshone father about his raped, dead daughter, and he emotionlessly rebuffs her sympathy. Then, he answers a knock on his door and it is the hunter, Cory Lambert. The Indian man slowly falls forward to embrace Lambert and weeps and weeps for the loss of all that life had given him.

Today, we ask: Who will stand for justice when extenuation of the killer, mercy for the violator, and pity for the monster are politically correct? And Wind River answers us: the tough guy who slays a predator, reluctantly, when it is an animal (Lambert ultimately spares the lioness and her cubs) and, remorselessly, when human.

Today, we ask: Who will stand for justice when extenuation of the killer, mercy for the violator, and pity for the monster are politically correct? And Wind River answers us: the tough guy who slays a predator, reluctantly, when it is an animal (Lambert ultimately spares the lioness and her cubs) and, remorselessly, when human (the men who beat to death Nathalie’s lover, gang-raped her, and drove her half-naked into the freezing night.)

Was Wind River produced as an indictment of injustice to Native Americans? I don’t know, but I know that in this movie the dominant themes triumph and they are merciless vengeance, hard-boiled humanity, and character. There are indications that they might have catalyzed a surprise winner in the box office and Oscar sweepstakes. Follow this film.

 

 

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