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As I write this review for Taylor Sheridan’s new film Wind River we’re experiencing some fairly remarkable meteorological theatrics in the Pacific Northwest. At night our moon is the color of a blood orange, while our sunrises and sunsets are a near supernatural hellfire red. The reason? Our atmosphere is currently congested with smoke from several wild fires tearing through the Canadian coastal ranges to the north, and the noxious haze has created an off-world prism on our horizon. We can only imagine the terrible price somebody’s paying for these gorgeous mutations in our sky down here. 

I bring this up because we find a similar concession in the Wyoming of Sheridan’s (Sicario, Hell or High Water) first directorial feature film Wind River. The Wind River Range is gorgeous country. Tall. Cold. Anchored. Very much wild. Wind River is also a beautiful piece of film, almost for the same reasons given for its setting. Its characters expressly detailed – fallible, deceptively minimal, and yes, absolutely beautiful to gaze into. Yet beauty here accrues heavier liabilities than it does assets. Characters in this story are taxed a terrible price for the Ansel Adams landscape surrounding them. They are taxed for their own inherent beauty as well.

Concerning living in this part of the country, Jeremy Renner’s character, Cory Lambert, says: “It’s not about luck. You either survive here, or you surrender.” If we can call this film something of a neo-western – and that designation feels right here – this is certainly the code it endorses. One of death as an act of resignation. One of life as an act of will. The central mystery of the film – what caused the death of an 18 year old native girl – is bedrocked in this bleak, binary philosophy.

Wind River opens on the closing acts of winter. Spring has just begun on the Arapaho reservation, the snow inching away and upward. Mountain lions are ranging out further from laying low in their dens. Which means ranch cattle are being used as kill dummies for adolescent cubs aspiring toward a successful position in the ecosystem. At the same time a pretty teenage member (Kelsey Asbille) of the Arapaho nation finds heinous death out on the valley hard pack. Discovered by a Department of Fish and Wildlife Agent hunting those same nuisance big cats, her body lies frozen stiff, barefoot, and bleeding from the mouth. This native girl’s purity and beauty bringing a different predator out from its den.

Her death can’t be ruled a homicide, it’s soon discovered that she expired from running too hard for too long through the snow on bare feet. Rapidly inhaling oxygen twenty degrees below zero has brought on pulmonary edema. The blood vessels in her lungs burst from the mixture of exertion and extreme cold, and then flooded her respiratory system with blood. The girl drowned running through the freezing night. Elizabeth Olsen’s FBI Agent Banner examines the body, sees the girl’s bare feet – now black with frost bite – and asks her mountain guide: “How far can a person run barefoot in the snow?”

“It’s tough to gauge the will to survive.” Lambert answers. His reply bearing much more gravity than it initially sounds. How far would you run if stopping meant death? And how bad is the event/persons you’re running from to warrant a six mile dash into frozen wilderness well after dark? There’s appreciation and heartache in his words. Renner’s character seemingly fascinated that these natives he lives among still have a place in the modern world. In one scene he puts his half-Arapaho son on a paint mare, bareback. The kid asks his father if he’s a cowboy now. “No,” says Lambert, “you’re an Indian.”

Even in a culture seemingly on the decline toward what he termed surrender, Cory Lambert still has a deep affection for the native nation’s ability to hold on. Survival in Wind River is not so much a mantra as it is a type of sclerosis. The hardening of the will through the forced exercises of casualty and tenacity.

There are no real racial/economic hang-ups in Taylor Sheridan’s first feature film. If his backwater characters, both white and native, treat the female FBI Agent suddenly foisted upon them with an air of apathy it’s not because she’s young, or white, or female. She’s originally from Fort Lauderdale Florida. Her FBI Field Office is in Las Vegas Nevada. For all intents and purposes, completely foreign universes to Wind River Wyoming. Universes with a totally inadequate work ethic. To the locals she’s just an additional work load.

On the Wind River reservation the renegade Indians of lore have turned to prescription drug abuse and dubstep music. We have the tribal lawmen, personified by Dances With Wolves alumni, Graham Greene, (in an appetizing bit of casting Sheridan adds another nod to Costern’s Oscar winning feature, Tantoo Cardinal also makes an appearance in Wind River) who are not much for making excuses for the criminal behavior of some of the tribe, and more about the satisfaction of getting bad actors off the streets and outside the realm of influence on the next generation of First Nationers.

Wind River is, at times, an ugly motion picture. An unsparing examination of violence – even sexual violence. As we switch between how Renner callously deals with the carnivorous pests of the natural world, and how he uses his same base dispassion to navigate through the seemingly less sophisticated world of man, Taylor doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff as maybe the two directors (Mackenzie and Villeneuve respectively) who adapted his screenplays for Sicario and Hell Or High Water may have.

The violence in this film isn’t the judicious, equitable violence from the golden age of the American western. This is radical violence. The kind of violence that occurs before we’re even prepared for it. The impromptu flash of light just before the thunderclap. The reckless violence of many bullets, of many holes, of ticking off the trigger pulls required to drop the man drawing on his own trigger. And yet this is the area Taylor Sheridan chose to allow Agent Banner every advantage against his rogues gallery of trackers, contractors, Indians, and killers. Quantico doesn’t suffer any fools. Special Agent Banner can handle herself in a gun battle.

Ultimately there’s a reason a musician of Nick Cave’s goth proclivities signed on to score this film. His quota for Americana, for ritual bloodletting, for the bitterness of existence, for the sweetness of existence, for the nature of man both indigenous and import, has been stockpiled in this one locality in the mountains of Wyoming – in this one film. Wind River is an uncompromising, impressive motion picture, without any grandiose effort to be either. Its aims are genuine. Its successes remarkable in a way that, frankly, Hell Or High Water’s were not – at least for this author.

Don’t be deceived by Wind River’s veneer of modesty or its oddly timed early August release date. This is a substantial motion picture.

GRADE: A

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