Second Sight: The Haunted America of Wind River

Taylor Sheridan's follow up feature film Wind River is a slow burn mediation on parenthood that retreads similar themes as It Comes at Night via a somber murder mystery accentuated by Native American culture and the perils of maturation. Jeremy Renner's tour de force performance is a wonderfully understated gem in a diamond sea of well-crafted dialogue, stunning natural visuals, and heart stopping violence. 

A bereaved Fish and Wildlife Service tracker named Cory is drawn into a murder case involving a teenage Native American girl who is found frozen to death in the Wyoming countryside. He is conscripted by a novice FBI agent and the subsequent investigation exposes casual darkness and inconsolable grief while Cory desperately tries to heal the wounds of his past by making things right in the present. Building off the success of his screenplays for Sicario and Hell or High Water, Sheridan continues to explore commonly accepted counterfeit ideas with respect to the idea of America, rather than its reality. Where Sicario explores the ugly truth of the drug war and Hell or High Water examines the disenfranchisement of the poor at the hands of corporate manipulation, Wind River abandons the front loading of commentary by way of a melancholic ballad about fathers and their wayward daughters, set amidst a backdrop of dilapidated trailers and drug dens on a Native American reservation.

Renner's performance combines emotional vulnerability with quiet fury. Wind River begins in media res, and Renner's Clay presents as an exceptionally well-defined man. He is a killer and a father. He embraces the importance of fighting for one's life and yet never imposes himself on others. He has experienced loss and anger unthinkable to the bulk of the population and yet these emotions are relatable in their presentation, washing over the audience in waves that intensify as the narrative travels closer to its bloody extinction. What could have been undone by over the top delivery becomes a masterful turn due to Renner's complete understanding of the restraint required to portray this type of character. He is supported by Elizabeth Olsen who gives yet another solid turn with what material she has. Her FBI agent begins as inessential to the plot outside of giving the investigation plausibility, but she manages to outshine her male colleagues during the films few scenes of violence, showcasing ethereal speed reloading and a remarkably human approach to unexpected violence and basic human survival instincts. Olsen's reaction to the apathetic gravity of incomprehensible loss is one of the most honest revelations of the year. These are flawed, but empathetic people in a confusing world who are realizing that nothing ever made sense in the first place. Both Renner and Olsen's journeys to understanding, and more importantly respecting this truth is Wind River's greatest offering. 

Gil Birmingham rounds out the cast as the father of the murdered girl. In a film packed with powerful performances, Birmingham's wounded understanding of parental depredation is both slyly profound and a scathing indictment to the travesty that befell Native Americans. There's an unforgettable scene in which Birmingham's character is wearing tribal face paint. When asked about its significance, he proclaims "I just picked it, I never understood that stuff." It is this simple line that is the essence of Wind River's rejection of the history book nobility of the lost tribes. These people are real and the violent subjugation of their culture is symbolized in Birmingham's shattered patron. The theme of strength and pride underneath a veneer of pain and poverty pervades Sheridan's quiet nightmare of manifest destiny throughout, entwining with the parable of fathers and forgiveness to evoke feelings of rage and enlightenment, brutally reminding the viewer that through darkness always comes the light. 

Ben Richardson's elegiacal cinematography blends with Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' laconic score to create a world of solitude and redemption, rather than capture it. Stoic wide shots of the frozen wilderness are dappled with bright crimson and soiled blues, harmonizing sudden bloodshed with the tranquility of what might have been. From its stress inducing opening to its perfectly subtle ending, this is a film about the journey through grief that is accentuated with high profile violence, a trademark of the imperfect kingdoms of Sheridan's imagination.

One of the more controversial choices involves the placement of a flashback in the middle of an already known scenario, reinforcing the terrors of the mind's eye. Usually, "showing the monster" does little to enhance ambiance, and this particular scene is ponderous upon its arrival, however, the flashback is not so much a memory as it is another character's mental reconstruction of events, which then drives the final act to completion. This notion dovetails with the mystery that surrounds another death within the story, allowing the recreation of death to be a gateway towards consolation and ultimately, a surrogacy of vendetta. This is punctuated by a possibly superfluous showdown that overcomes being extraneous by reinforcing the abruptness of brutality and by demonstrating how exposure to violence and isolation cause humans to react in a myriad of ways. 

In theaters now, Wind River is a remarkable film the weaves together a labyrinth of emotion underneath an exceptionally well-crafted crime thriller. There are classic elements of detective stories, ghosts of the American neo-western, and emotionally exhausting touchstones of a gripping familial drama that create a vortex atop a graveyard of mortgaged Native American heritage. Surprisingly emotional performances, gripping camerawork, and intense violence are more than attributes of this phenomenal film, they are its lifeblood, breathing and erudite rhythm of parental devastation and paternal resolution into its frigid heart. A cursory examination shows Wind River to be a solid crime thriller that is rough around the edges. A deeper exploration reveals it is not only a heartbreaking story about the price of grief, it is a wonderful exposition about the power of self-forgiveness.

-Kyle Jonathan