Film review by Carl Wyant.
Indians Kill Cowboys…scrawled on the wall of a derelict house trailer, a meth den sitting on a remote patch of tribal land, surrounded by the abandoned carcasses of rusted-out cars and trucks. This is a landscape, a human-scape that has become the visual cliché of life on reservations scattered all across the American West.
Spray-painted in letters six feet high, the message is blunt, intended as a warning, even a prophecy.
In reality, it’s nothing more than a death rattle of weak defiance from what remains of those who once were warriors.
‘Wind River’, the Wyoming land from where the film takes its name, is a rural slum, and the last home of the Shoshone and the Arapaho, two tribes who were once mortal enemies, thrown together and left to die by Whites for whom Indians are Indians.
It’s a crime story, a murder, but there are more than enough victims to go around in this res noir…some ghost dancing with poverty and addiction to their ultimate self-destruction, others scarred by loss and regret. The agony is etched on every face, and the bodies pile up like chord wood.
Director Taylor Sheridan’s sparse writing is seething with an anger that oozes from every open wound in what is simultaneously a lock-jaw tight thriller and a pathos riddled tragedy.
Maybe it’s only a post-Western, but all the usual moving parts of the tradition are there, if a bit scrambled and re-ordered.
The landscape is wide-open, harsh, and forbidding…the snow providing a canvas for the blood. The language is dry and restrained. There are a still a few horses, but mostly they’ve been replaced by SUVs, pick-ups, and snowmobiles.
As in John Ford’s classic The Searchers, a daughter is violated, and a hunter sets out for justice, or better, revenge . . . all the same in the code of the West.
Glaringly, however, the Indians are the heroes in this one, and the Cowboys, mining thugs, the savages. Revisionist? Probably, and a long overdue re-write of the genre.
Jeremy Renner is the patient hunter, a white man in name only. He and his family are the victims of a previous, all too similar crime and tragedy, and now he has the chance to set things right.
Like every great Western hero, he goes about his business quietly, a man working alone, but Sheridan is far too unconventional to leave it at that, and he pairs Renner’s Wildlife Service tracker Cory Lambert with a female FBI agent Jane Banner, portrayed remarkably by Elizabeth Olsen. She has the authority, and he has the knowledge…together, they represent a new moral order in the West, and ultimately they triumph, but as with all tragedies, at great cost.
In the confusion of genre conventions, and stereotypes, Martin, the girl’s father, sits alone in his backyard, overlooking the highway below, paralysed by his grief.
He’s painted his face with a death mask, but he confesses to Renner’s Lambert that he has no real idea how the painting is supposed to look, so disconnected is he from his tribal heritage.
In the end, there’s some levelling, some measure of retribution in the tale itself, but the redemption is on a far larger scale, for the way in which these stories of the West are told, and for the narrative balance that’s restored.
With so much physical and emotional tension, mixed with frighteningly authentic violence, this film is not an easy one to watch, despite Ben Richardson’s compelling cinematography. It is, however, an extraordinarily well-crafted drama, and all the more so because unlike so much thriller fare, it dares to be about something larger than itself.
The Western at its best was a moral tale.
Nothing has changed. Everything has changed.