The Western is a genre that is so locked to a particular time and place, and yet evokes a certain cultural wellspring that as a narrative genre, it offers some really incredible opportunities to redefine itself. We see this all the time, with sci-fi Westerns, Western takes on even older stories, and perhaps most compelling, Westerns set in a day and age where the realities of the old West at once both no longer apply, and despite the odds, still do. This last category is where we find Wind River, a 2017 movie that has been billed as a “neo-Western murder mystery,” but when when one gets right down to it, it’s a tale about isolation, injustice, violence and a million different kinds of regret—and how life on the margin often brings all of those things in double measure.
The story takes place on the Wind River Indian Reservation, Wyoming, where 18-year-old Native woman Natalie Hanson is found dead in the snow. She lies naked, her body abused in more ways than one, and having died by rapid inhalation of sub-zero air. She clearly ran for her life from something out into the cold until she died. But she was murdered, all the same. A murder on the reservation falls under FBI jurisdiction, so rookie agent Jane Banner is sent to investigate. Banner is smart and tough, but doesn’t know the lay of the land—physically or culturally—so she teams up with Cory Lambert, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent for help. Lambert is no stranger to the brutal conditions on the Reservation, having once had a family here, which fell apart when his own daughter died, much like Natalie did, three years before. For Lambert, the case becomes as much a way to chase away the demons of his own daughter’s unsolved murder as it is to deliver closure to Natalie’s grief-stricken parents. For Banner, the case is another murder in a place where she knows just enough to sense how far out of her element she really is. But as she and Banner put the pieces together, Natalie’s death becomes a fairly simple case that defies a simple resolution. Because this is Wind River. And out here, nothing comes easy. Especially justice.
Wind River is a slow walk through the desolation and sorrow that is life on a modern reservation, a kind of no-man’s land where Native Americans are both allowed to live as they like, and yet somehow isolated from the rest of the country that surrounds them. Like so many real reservations, Wind River is a bleak portrait of poverty and loss of hope. But there is also a shadow of death that hangs over the place, as everyone in the story knows that Natalie Hanson’s murder probably will go unsolved and even worse, unpunished. That is the way of things out here; Native girls go missing or are killed all the time, and nothing ever happens about it. Director Taylor Sheridan made this movie to draw attention to that point—one that most Americans don’t know or care to learn. But in the narrative, the reality of that hangs over everything. Even if we believe that the story will resolve in favor of our heroes, can there really be a happy ending amid such sadness? We’d be fools to expect one.
What makes Wind River work so well is the relationship between Lambert and Banner. We see the rookie/veteran pairing in crime movies all the time. But here, Banner’s inexperience is our own as an audience. And Lambert’s sorrow is his ticket toward authenticity; he’s a white man living among the Native Americans, sure, but what ties him to them is that he’s suffered the same kind of loss they have. Losing the ones we love has a way of making equals out of almost anybody. And as we watch Lambert especially, we see how deep his wound runs. He checks in with his ex-wife, and it’s clear they both still love each other, but the way in which they lost their daughter was too much for them. There’s a reason why most marriages don’t survive the loss of a child, especially one whose loss has gone unanswered. He knows that solving Natalie’s murder won’t bring his daughter back. But maybe it’ll help those whose cultural erosion has been so great that they no longer even know how to grieve as they once did.
As a Western goes, Wind River proceeds slowly, surely and methodically. So when it arrives at its climactic shootout, it ratchets the tension to an unbearable level, and then makes us pause while it cuts away to another scene entirely to remind us why this shootout is about to occur. It’s within this interlude—where we see what really happens to poor Natalie—that is the movie’s moment of truth. Not because we must witness what we have already imagined as Natalie’s fate. But because of what happens directly before, as she and her security-guard boyfriend share some pillow talk. They clearly love each other, and are awash with the good fortune to have found happiness in a place where nobody finds much of anything. But beyond that, he talks about taking her with him when he leaves Wind River, working for other mining, oil and gas outfits around the country, as he does. He speaks of maybe going to Chico, California, and for her, it sounds like heaven. Because that far off the Reservation, it kind of is. Their imagined future isn’t some lie they’re going to tell themselves. They can have it. And when we realize how it’s all going to be taken from them, we share in Banner’s resolve to bring the law even against impossible odds, and Lambert’s delivery of justice. Not just for him. But for all the Natalies that ever were. And, more importantly, for those that will be.