by: Michael Shields
Snubbed by The Academy: The case for Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River as one of the finest films of 2017, one that highlights the adversities Native Americans still face in the United States and examines the suffering caused when loved ones are lost…
Taylor Sheridan has, over the course of the last several years, helped craft a pair of films that awe in their affectivity and splendor. Responsible for penning Denis Villeneuve’s critically acclaimed 2015 crime film Sicario, as well as last year’s stunning Hell or High Water, a sleeper hit which garnered four Oscar nods including Best Picture ((Directed by David Mackenzie.)), Sheridan has matured into one of Hollywood’s most intriguing screenwriters. Displaying a unique gift for enthralling character development and a shrewd knack for writing stirring and thought-provoking dialogue, Sheridan writes films that are uniquely human and illustrative of the compulsory yet increasingly distressed essence of the American spirit. This year, Sheridan was at it again, not only writing Wind River, one of the year’s most captivating films, but also directing it.
Wind River is a story which follows a rookie FBI agent named Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olson) who is dispatched to investigate the murder of a local girl on a remote Native American reservation in Wyoming. Banner, due to her inexperience and unfamiliarity with the terrain and local customs, is teamed with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent named Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who, we soon come to realize, has an anguished past, his daughter dying in the wilderness in a similar way as the victim. As Jane and Cory edge closer and closer to the truth, they journey deep into a violent and corrupt world, where insight into the inequalities that Native Americans are forced to endure is found, and the fallout of the case hits closer to home to Jane and Cory than they ever could have imagined.
On its surface, the premise of Wind River might appear to be that of a straightforward crime drama, but like all of Sheridans’ films, the action at the core of the plot functions as a vehicle in which to explore weighty personal and social themes. Wind River, like Sicario and Hell or High Water before it, whisks viewers away to an isolated corner of America, in this case the frozen, desolate, and mountainous terrains of Wyoming. Taking viewers down the road less traveled, Sheridan tells stories that highlight hardships that are far from sight and otherwise buried away, sometimes purposefully. The crux of the action in the film takes place on the Wind River Indian Reservation, and because of this viewers are granted a troubling and realistic look at the conditions that exist there today. Renner’s character laments about the hardships of the Native Americans in the film, acknowledging that “The Tamis people were forced here, stuck here for a century. The snow and silence, it’s the only thing that hasn’t been taken from them.” Further driving home the pain endured by Native Americans to this day in our country, and in direct relation to the crimes at the heart of Wind River, the film concludes with a title card that reads: “In America missing persons statistics are kept for every demographic except Native American women, whose numbers remain unknown.” This chilling fact not only acts as valuable food for thought, but as a reminder of how far the United States has yet to go to become truly great for all who reside within it ((Sheridan didn’t simply honor the Native Americans who inhabit the frozen heartland of Wyoming in narrative alone, he cast as many Native American actors as possible and, on top of that, the Tunica-Biloxi tribe, through a joint venture known as Acacia Entertainment, financed ninety percent of the film’s budget.)).
While large scale injustices are highlighted in a profound manner in Wind River, the pain that is associated with the loss of a family member, a pain that no one, no matter their heritage, can escape, hits just as hard. There is a part of Wind River, during the film’s emotional climax, that has stuck with me tremendously. It unfolds within a monologue delivered by Jeremy Renner towards the end of the film when two friends lament of their shared loss of a child. They speak about their undying pain, and in a deeply affecting show of sympathy to his anguished friend, Lambert expounds upon what he views as a choice we have in just how we deal with it:
“I’d like to tell you it gets easier. It doesn’t. If there’s any comfort, it’s getting used to the pain, I suppose. I went to a grief seminar in Casper. Did you know that? I don’t know why, I just wanted the bad to go away, I wanted answers to questions that couldn’t be answered. The counselor come up to me after the seminar and sat down next to me, and he said something that stuck with me. I don’t know if it’s what he said, or it’s how he said it. He says, ‘I got some good news, and I got some bad news. Bad news is you’re never going to be the same. You’re never going to be whole, not ever again. You lost your daughter. Nothing’s ever going to replace that. Now the good news is, as soon as you accept that, and you let yourself suffer, you’ll allow yourself to visit her in your mind, and you’ll remember all the love she gave, all the joy she knew.’ Point is, Martin, you can’t steer from the pain. If you do, you’ll rob yourself, you’ll rob yourself of every memory of her. Every last one, from her first step to her last smile. Kill them all. Just take the pain, Martin. You hear me? You take it. It’s the only way you’ll keep her with you.”
Reason would suggest that burying the pain of loss away, or steering from the pain as Lambert puts it, is the easiest way to mitigate the hurt. But Wind River suggests this only serves to bury the memories and all that remains of your loved one, implying that facing that pain is the answer, as that allows you to hold near that which meant so much. This idea, that there is a benefit in true suffering, is profound, as is the moment shared between these two suffering souls in a general sense. This scene is an embodiment of the sometimes subtle but decidedly robust power of one of 2017’s most affecting films. A scene that underscores Sheridan’s adept screen writing ability, as this discussion offers a bit of hope to all those in the throes of suffering, and drives home the idea that we all have more in common than we have in conflict. We all hurt, and we are all in this thing called life together, and because of this there is no reason we should not be able to find a way to live in harmony with one another.