This American drama tells the story of the death of a local girl on a remote Native American Reservation, and the attempts to solve the crime. She has been multiply raped and is found dead in the snow.The film won the “Un Certain Regard for Best Director” award for Taylor Sheridan at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for his first feature film.
A young FBI agent, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), newly recruited, joins forces with a veteran Fish and Wildlife Officer, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) to help solve Natalie Hanson’s (Kelsey Asbille) death on the Wind River Indian Reservation. The film opens in a freezing Wyoming winter, where Natalie dies in “snow and silence” after desperately running across the ice to get away.
Lambert is emphatically sensitive to the needs of the native people around him, and wants to do the right thing. He has deep ties with the Indian community, but is haunted by a tragedy from the past that affects him deeply. His marriage to a Native American woman (Julia Jones) has broken up, and he has lost a teenage daughter in an unsolved crime. Haunted by the thought he failed “to protect his daughter”, he lives alone. While on a hunt to track animal predators, he discovers a dead girl’s body frozen in the snow, and her violent death forces his trauma to resurface. Banner helps him to investigate the crime, but she is ill equipped to cope with the dark realities of the Wind River Reservation, and the complexity of life of those who live in it.
The dead girl’s parents (Apesanahkwat and Tantoo Cardinal) have no idea who might have killed their daughter. In the community in which they live, there is a careless attitude to life and death, a history of violence to women, and many women “go missing”. An oil company that works the reservation’s land for profit is riddled by corruption, and community loyalties are murkily ambivalent towards it. Lambert’s and Banner’s inquiries into the crime quickly give rise to violent consequences. This is a movie that is heavy on action and everyone’s behaviour is lightly touched with conscience. Most of the characters, even those representing the law – like those in “Hell and High Water” (which Taylor brilliantly scripted) – behave in morally ambiguous ways.
The film comments on major social issues, that include domestic abuse, sexual violence, poverty, and drug addiction, and the social issues characterising the impoverished Reservation are well integrated into the events surrounding the crime and its eventual solution. Sheridan lingers on the lonely life of the people who live on the Reservation and their psychological isolation is reinforced by the wintry “ice and cold” that blights their lives. A haunting musical score emphasises mood and character superbly.
There is a strong Sam Peckinpah feel to the movie, as guns are fired and bullets whizz by, from weapons held by people, for the law and against the law, willing to fight to the bitter end. The film’s climax is shocking and suspenseful. Sheridan uses set pieces to convey the hostility of the environment, and the aggression of those fighting in it, and he explores relationships among his characters in a sensitive, complex way – illustrated, for example, by Lambert’s caring interactions with the Indian father of the girl he found buried in the snow.
This is an impressively structured film that demonstrates the work of a very talented new director. The film pits the force of law against the force of nature, and it highlights pressing social issues that characterise Native American life in a white man’s world. A little like “Hell and High Water”, it has a patterned look that unwinds events in an unforgiving environment. Scripting for the movie is outstanding; the cinematography is superb; and Renner’s performance is especially memorable.
The film is a taut, socially conscious thriller that keeps the viewer utterly absorbed, and it has to be one of the best thrillers of the year.
Peter W. Sheehan is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and broadcasting
Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting