If you can stomach violent films, Wind River may still be too much. Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water) has written and directed a great story, but the film’s graphic rape scene is the dark center, where he demands the audience not look away. The importance of highlighting Native American stories that star Native actors cannot be understated, but the emotional toll of some of the scenes – combined with the graphic violence – make this a film I’m unlikely to re-watch even though the movie and its performances were great.
It’s hard for me to recommend a film that left the person sitting behind me audibly sobbing through its last thirty minutes. That is demonstrative of the power of film to connect to the audience, but rape and murder are a lot even before the details of the picture are filled in. And this film is all about the details.
The film’s opening scene is a girl running in the snow and falling, followed by a professional hunter with the Fish & Wildlife service (Jeremy Renner) shooting down a wolf, one of many predators that can be found in the Wyoming wilderness. Eventually he sees some human tracks in the snow that lead to her body, extremities blue, and raped. He calls the Tribe’s police, who are a force of six for an area “the size of Rhode Island.” They call in the FBI, who send in Agent Jane Banner, played by Elizabeth Olsen. Renner’s character Lambert tells her that the girl, Natalie, died not from being beaten or assaulted but from her lungs bursting. The FBI won’t send more agents unless it’s a homicide, so Banner decides to investigate in search of the reason why the girl was running and who raped her, which would allow her to connect the indirect cause with the actual cause of death.
This is a small and borderline destitute community, where everyone knows everyone regardless of mileage between their homes. The young adults face immediate dangers of drugs, too, because there are few options for those who cannot leave the Reservation. Lambert’s job brought him to the area around and in the Reservation about two decades before the events of the film, but even though he is well known and respected, the Natives make sure he is always aware that he is not one of them. His ex-wife is from the community. Though there isn’t tension between them and Lambert, the other White men who work at the drilling area nearby are known to be trouble.
The investigation takes little relative time since there are so few suspects: it’s either the boys from the drug den down the street or it’s the drillers. The tension is built from the speed in which a seemingly calm and controlled situation can become a skirmish. Because Agent Bannon is an outsider, she knows that she faces the additional danger of the ongoing blizzard and cold, so she works with Lambert.
Bannon is determined to get justice for Natalie, and Lambert’s motivations come from his own daughter’s connections to Natalie. The conversations inside and outside of the investigation are very telling: people are motivated by different things when they are driven by grief, and the position of the FBI as authority doesn’t deter those who have nothing to lose. Natalie’s parents grieve in blood, both their own, and that of others. Her father struggles to connect himself back to his ancestral roots but there are no teachers left to guide him; her mother wishes to join her daughter. It’s unpleasant and made darker with graphic depictions of bloodied cuts and anguished cries.
The tormented family and tribe is well-known, if vaguely understood concept to outsiders of Native circles. Many stories with the same type graphic violence have been told in contemporary Native American literature and other arts, but this one comes from a man who is not himself Native American, but uses his position, enhanced by his Academy Award nomination, to demand the hiring of Native American actors for their respective roles in the film. He unflinchingly lashes the viewers who may have expected a more generic thriller or mystery, as though he’s turning the mirror on all of us for our ignorance and our crimes. It’s certainly not unfair to use film as an allegorical comment on the way Native Americans are treated.
But some of us hear the word “rape” and hear the description of a horrific and painful death and do not need the visual alongside it. Some of us don’t need to see the girl’s face fill the screen, unconscious, as she is being raped. Her awakening, then a cut to a different angle to better show who the violator is and how he assaults her further. There is no doubt that she was raped from that first shot. Why do we need the second? There’s a moment not long before where there was a cut away from a consensual sex scene, so why must we be shown the rape in real time? This film is meant to shake you, to teach you a lesson about the disappearance of and rape of Native women, but we are sympathetic to the director, the vigilante, and the Agent by the time we get to this scene. We do not need more violence against women to understand. I could conjure the horror just fine.
Crime thrillers often toe this line between realism and gratuity, but this time, Sheridan has added a dimension of hostility that is not meant for everyone, but it certainly affects those who may be more sensitive.