Blu-ray Review: Wind River (2017)

By , Contributor
Wind River is one of the most compelling dramatic thrillers of the year—expertly paced and sensitively acted. Writer-director Taylor Sheridan (an Oscar nominee for writing Hell or High Water) lets his murder mystery unfold considerably slower than what many viewers might expect from the genre. The body of a young Native American woman, Natalie (Kelsey Chow, in a performance mostly seen via flashback), is discovered frozen in the tundra of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. For U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), it's personal. Lambert knew the victim and her family. He also lost a daughter of his own, an unsolved murder that destroyed his marriage and left him a haunted shell of a man.

Sheridan mostly pushes the circumstances of the central murder to the background in order to focus on careful character development. Lambert is out of his jurisdiction when FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives on the scene. Though she decides to go with her gut and treat the case as a homicide (the medical examiner lists the official cause of death as "ruptured lungs" due to exposure to frigid air), Banner soon realizes she can benefit from the help of Lambert due to his intimate knowledge of many locals. Also assisting is Wind River Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene). Despite everyone's concerted efforts, there's a sense early on that the full truth may never be completely uncovered. This, naturally, adds to the heartbreak of Natalie’s devastated parents Martin (Gil Birmingham) and Annie (Althea Sam).

It cannot be emphasized enough: Wind River is not a typical whodunit, 'police procedural' thriller. Using the largely favorable but often caveat-laced critics' reviews as a gauge, it seems numerous folks found fault with Sheridan's lack of clever plot twists. On the contrary, the control exerted by Sheridan works in the film's favor, keeping it grounded in believable reality in a genre that often has a tendency to fly off the handle into pure pulp. In fact, as Lambert and Banner's inquest proceeds, drawing in a number of suspects that often lead to dead ends, Sheridan might've been better off avoiding a late-third act expository sequence that fills in number of gaps that didn't really need filling. Much of the murder case is shrouded in shadowy half-truths and the film may have been even stronger had it retained more ambiguity.

Wind River stands tall as a study of Lambert's life in a kind of self-imposed exile, forever blaming himself for his daughter's death even though his son is alive and well and in need of his father. It's also the story of a young, inexperienced FBI agent who is struggling mightily to uphold her principles and adapt to a harsher environment than she's ever found herself in. Secondarily, and here comes my own caveat, it's about the grieving parents of the victim. Birmingham delivers such a finely-tuned, deeply-felt performance as Natalie's heartbroken dad that perhaps Sheridan should have utilized him more fully. Ultimately there is an uncomfortable air of "white savior" syndrome lacing Wind River. Some mention is made about the alarmingly high volume of unsolved violent crime and murder that occurs on Indian reservations. Yet the Native American characters here are supporting players, taking a backseat to the star power of the film's white stars.

That lack of balance between the Native American and Caucasian characters is a problem, but not one big enough to sabotage the film's strong virtues. Maybe it was a commercially-minded concession. Maybe it didn't simply didn't occur to Sheridan as he crafted the story. His also-excellent Hell or High Water suffered from the same flaw—that film included some high-minded commentary about the realities facing Native Americans, while focusing almost entirely on its white hero (Gil Birmingham was also extraordinary in that film, but his character arc there was as bluntly truncated as Graham Greene's is in Wind River). Either way, there was room for improvement in Wind River's handling of its Native American characters.

Lionsgate's Blu-ray includes a great transfer of Ben Richardson evocative cinematography and a DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix. Those who enjoy special features may well be disappointed by the scant supplements: a few minutes of deleted scenes and another few minutes of behind-the-scenes material.
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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is film and music. His new jazz album Good Merlin is now available.

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