Wind River is a movie I went to on the strength of the writer. It was Taylor Sheridan’s first chance to direct one of his own scripts, and I’d been impressed by both Sicario and Hell or High Water. The buzz I was seeing in reviews was that Sheridan wasn’t ready to direct, but what I took away was that he’s more or less OK at that, but that I’m getting tired of his writing. Specifically, I’m getting tired of his men.
Lets recap briefly. Sicario is a pretty good movie about the way that men are toxic and use violence to make things worse while pushing women off to the margins. Hell or High Water is a pretty need modern western about how bank robbers are still jerks no matter how much you think banks are the worst, and yep, it runs on the engine that men are toxic and violent.
Which is why Wind River really started to hack me off after a while, despite a solid cast. Jeremy Renner is almost scarily good at playing toxic men, but in Wind River he’s practically set up as the only person in the movie who’s got his act together. He really doesn’t, but the pacing and the staging would make a lot of people think, sure it’s fine to be toxic as long as you’re reflective and in touch with your emotions. The person I found truly admirable was Gil Birmingham’s world weary reservation police chief, whose “This thing is practically solving itself.” was true to both his character and the agressive simple-mindedness of the plot. There’s no complex murder mystery here; the obvious suspects are the bad guys, and the only mystery is how the hell they thought that they were going to get away with it.
The reality is that they had one pretty good reason to think they were going to get away with it; they were white guys on an Indian reservation and they killed an Indian. Reservations don’t have the resources to police themselves properly, and the US government rules on what the tribal police can and can’t investigate when outsiders come onto the reservation mean that there’s practical impunity for outsiders in the empty spaces Indians have been herded into. All this ugliness is hinted at in the script and the playing, but I don’t know that hinting is enough.
Two other things bothered me even more. One is that once again Sheridan’s given us a plot in which a woman is trying to do her best to make the right thing happen, and gets sidelined by men. Elizabeth Olsen’s FBI agent is brave and committed, but in the end she’s overwhelmed by events and has to be rescued by a manly man. Up until then, she was a fascinating mess in some ways. I thought she was an idiot to go into an unknown building with a violent clown in it who’d just half-blinded her with pepper spray so that she couldn’t even see where she was going, but I admired her commitment to putting him down, particularly the bit about how you keep shooting at the hostile until you can’t hear any shots coming back. But all her efforts come to nothing; at the climax of the movie, she tries to keep the peace and it still turns into a massacre.
Which leads into a puzzle; by the time Jeremy Renner’s schwacked the last of the bad guys, there’s no-one left alive to explain what the hell happened, but the whole cast carries on as though they’ve seen the flashback the audience gets. That’s just lazy. I think we’re supposed to understand that Jeremy Renner, magical hunter, has figured it all out by reading tracks and everyone just takes his word for it.
Which leads me to the thing which bothered me most. Sheridan’s exercised, and rightly, by the way that Native Americans are being treated right now in the USA. Which makes it grate that the hero of the hour is Jeremy Renner’s white guy who married into the tribe. And is practically a magical Indian with his tracking skills and stoicism and discount Patrick Swayze aphorisms. Men are terrible. White men are particularly terrible. They treat women and minorities like dirt. Fine. That’s all true. But if it really bothers you, then stop treating them like Homer Simpson treats beer. You can’t call them the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems. Not if you want the victims to believe they can stand up and face them down.