The idea of making a thriller based around the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women is startling: to turn this issue into entertainment feels exploitative and disrespectful. Though it is not impossible to make a genre film about social problems, it is a difficult task. When the focus is on creating an engaging, suspense-filled film, the question arises of whether there is sufficient space for discussions of real-world violence. Too often, these considerations are sacrificed in favour of narrative thrills and genre conventions. And when a film centres its plot around a radicalised socio-political problem but still focuses almost exclusively on white protagonists, its ability to provide an in-depth look at these issues is further diminished. Historically, film has co-opted the struggles of Indigenous peoples for the benefit of white characters. From John Ford’s Fort Apache (1948), which honed in on the way white people on the frontier dealt with the horrors of colonialism, to more recent ‘white saviour’ films including Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner, 1990) which take up specific struggles to exemplify white heroism, this kind of racism has become customary in film. Though writer-director Taylor Sheridan does seem to have moments of awareness, his debut film Wind River is not as sensitive to its subject as it should be.
Set in the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, the film opens with Natalie (Kelsey Chow) running barefoot through the snow before dying. Her body is found by gruff Wildlife Services agent, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a white man whose own biracial daughter was killed in a similar manner. Inexperienced white FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is sent to investigate, aiding the Tribal Police there. The mystery of how Natalie was killed unfolds slowly: Jane is continually shocked by the lack of resources on the reservation that impedes their investigation. The reservation-inhabitants live in poverty and young people mistrustful of a system that has let them down turn instead to crime and drugs. The government gives almost no aid, and law enforcement is sparse, with only a few qualified officers available. Finding out how Natalie died begins to feel impossible.
Jane, totally naive, is used as a tool to articulate how bad these conditions are. She asks why there isn’t more help available and Tribal Police officer Ben (Graham Greene) quips that at this point, working without help is what they are accustomed to. This heavy-handedness is not so bad – making explicit the institutional problems, even simplified versions of them, facing Indigenous populations in North America feels necessary. Dialogue between a baffled Jane and a weary Ben is sometimes laughably forced, but it shows us the film’s moral position, and in its own way this lack of ambiguity is refreshing. Problems arise, however, when one looks beyond the flat statements of socio-political issues.
When Jane arrives at the reservation, the understaffed Tribal Police are not able to provide the help she needs and Cory is hired to aid in their investigation. Uncomfortably, we watch Jane turn to Cory over Ben. She ignores Ben, the law enforcement agent, in order to speak to the man who hunts coyotes when they get too close to herds of sheep. At crime scenes Jane prefers to speak to Cory, and the two of them spend more time investigating on their own; Ben and his police force are conspicuously absent. Within a film of only the most clumsy and literal statements, are these moments of subtle racism meant to demonstrate the prejudices of the white characters, or do they reveal more about Sheridan’s nearsightedness? Wind River is not a smart film. It is blunt and easy to uncode. It is difficult, then, to believe that these moments are meant as quietly astute explorations of the pervasive nature of racism.
As the investigation progresses, Jane, Cory, and Ben are led to the trailers of white contract workers after finding out that Natalie was dating one of them. Upon their arrival, the men become hostile, and a shootout ensues. The murder is revealed in a flashback. Natalie and her boyfriend, Matt, spend the evening in the trailer, thinking the other workers are out. The men return early and drunkenly start a fight with Matt, brutally beating him. With Matt down, they then turn to Natalie, raping her in a horrifically graphic scene. She manages to escape, running into the mountain where her lungs burst from the cold. At this point the film becomes unbearable.
No longer an innocuously dumb film, Wind River turns to explicit and gratuitous depictions of sexual violence. While the flashback might be necessary to show us how and why the murder happened, the decision to show the rape itself is excessive, especially as it is shot in a manner that gives us a full view of the action. But Wind River is a film that is fascinated by Indigenous suffering and this is often manifested as the excessive cinematic torture of these subjects, especially women. Natalie’s grieving mother is introduced in the film as she self-harms by slicing her forearm with a knife in a shockingly bloody scene. The women who aren’t psychologically destroyed by their environment are the victims of rape and murder. A parade of physically and emotionally tortured Indigenous women is presented to us, but they are props rather than people: their dead and mutilated bodies are on display for the benefit of the white protagonists. Whether this means shots of self-harming, of rape, of corpses in the snow, or of bodies cut open on the autopsy table, Wind River manages to encompass every way a body can be violated.
Though the Indigenous women are at the centre of the plot, driving the suspense, even the living ones are given little space as people. Cory’s ex-wife as well as her mother are both mourning their daughter and granddaughter, and their characters are reduced to that bitterness. Alive, they fare somewhat better on screen than those who die violent deaths, but they are only their torment and are barely alive because of it. Because Sheridan does not allow these women to be characters; it is only Jane and Cory who manage to come through as a real people.
Jane grows as her initial (somewhat snobby) innocence develops into a capable confidence, while both her and Cory are allowed to open up emotionally as they experience the deaths of these young women. Narratively, it makes sense. Cory grieves his daughter, and empathises with the family that loses theirs in a similar manner. But films do not exist in a vacuum. The end product is another movie where the torture of people of colour, here Indigenous women, is fodder to make white people feel. In a film where nearly every character is in mourning, it is insulting that it is only white people whose grief is given depth and complexity.
After the shootout, Cory visits the injured Jane in the hospital. At first, they make jokes. Tonally off, it is a mistake to place this levity in such close proximity to a rape scene. Sheridan treats his white protagonists well: after the second-hand trauma they have experienced, they are given a moment of respite. But this consideration is never extended to the Indigenous women of the film. When Jane breaks down and tearfully states she is lucky to have survived, Cory reassures her it isn’t luck: it’s her strength that saved her. Other women are destroyed, raped, murdered, or catatonic from grief and fear, but Jane is depicted as strong. Cory compares her to the sheep he protects, stating that wolves kill the weakest of a herd, not the unluckiest: Jane isn’t lucky, she is a survivor. The Indigenous women of Wind River are objectified by the violence against them and even those who survive become nothing but that violence. Horrifyingly disrespectful to these women, Sheridan gives us this scene as the emotional climax of his film, where Jane is empowered amidst the deaths of Indigenous women, able to be a survivor where they become symbols of trauma.
Sheridan is obviously opposed to the systematic violence against Indigenous communities. Yet he cannot seem to conceive of Indigenous women as people, characters who can drive a film which is about them, seeing them instead as victims that can fuel the drama of his thriller. Despite whatever good intentions prompted the making of the film, Wind River is sickening. It graphically exploits trauma for the purposes of entertainment, and depicts violence against Indigenous peoples for the benefit of white protagonists and audiences, while saying very little of value. Wind River progresses steadily from a disrespectful thriller to an unwatchable display of racial misogyny.