Taking in the Pain

Wind River a film by Taylor Sheridan.  With Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Kelsey Asbille, Gil Birmingham.  *****

When Wind River ended I turned to my wife and said, “That’s the most violent movie I’ve ever seen,” a statement which I soon realized was ridiculous.  What I meant was that the violence was the most wrenching I’d ever seen: I was emotionally invested in characters who were in deep trouble and were suffering.  Not one moment of the violence was gratuitous.  It was all an integral part of the story.

There was a scene toward the end which reminded me of a standoff in a Quentin Tarrantino movie, and I realized how different the two scenes were: every violent moment in a Tarrantino movie seems gratuitous, intended to titillate people who enjoy violence or impress them with how grotesquely realistic he can make it.  Nothing ever seems real in a Tarrantino movie.  It’s all a cartoon.  Every scene in Wind River seems real.  The inspiration for this movie is life as we live it, the necessity to absorb pain if we’re to go on living.

As the film opens we see a barefoot Native American girl running across a snow-covered Wyoming landscape.  The landscape itself is magnificent, and becomes almost a character, a force, in the movie.  She stumbles and falls, stumbles and falls again, as we hear the words of a poem that a friend of hers wrote.  She is bleeding from the mouth because, when you run at that altitude in the frigid air, your lungs eventually hemorrhage.

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), the man who finds her body, is not a law enforcement officer.  He’s a tracker, who kills the predatory animals—wolves, primarily—who attack livestock on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.  Finding her body is a wrenching moment for him, not only because he knows this young and beautiful girl, Natalie (Kelly Asbille), who was his daughter’s best friend.  His daughter had died some months before in similar mysterious circumstances, and this death brings back the other one.  It’s as if there’s an epidemic of Native American girls dying—Lambert himself isn’t Native American, but his ex-wife is—and the source of the epidemic seems at first to be the dead-end life that young men lead on the reservation, including Natalie’s brother.

A murder that occurs on a reservation is a federal crime, so it is the responsibility not of the local police, who are hopelessly understaffed anyway, but the FBI.  Any agent who showed up would probably be in over their head, but the one who does arrive, Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), seems especially so.  In the midst of a terrific blizzard, where she is going to have to travel miles by snowmobile to see the body, she’s wearing a skimpy jacket and nothing to cover her head.  She’s also equipped with investigative procedures that aren’t going to work on the reservation.  The local head of police, Ben (Graham Greene), is savvy and sympathetic, but Jane has the good sense to see that her best helper may be Cory, not only because his tracking skills will be important, but because he, like Jane, is penetrating an alien culture.  The difference is that he’s been there for years.  He also has a deep human sympathy that would serve him well anywhere.

Jane is inexperienced in dealing with this population, as most agents would be.  “Why is it that whenever you people try to help us, you always insult us first?” says Martin, Natalie’s deeply bereaved father (Gil Birmingham).  Again, Cory is different.  There is a scene between Cory and Martin, two fathers who have lost their daughters, where the movie completely stops, and Cory tells Martin about a grieving workshop he went to, which seems out of character for the rugged Cory, but he admits he was desperate.  What he tells Martin, in effect, is that he has to take in the pain.  “If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her.”

That seems to be the message that people all around them haven’t absorbed; they’re running from pain with drugs, alcohol, any number of dead end activities (though the two girls, to their credit, were not.  They were girls, with the usual interests girls have.  But they were fully living their lives.  That’s part of what’s so sad about their deaths).  That long speech would seem canned if it weren’t so perfect, and if someone with less credibility than Jeremy Renner had delivered it.  Cory seems rugged, principled, ruthless, wounded, all at once.  He’s at the heart of the story, as its moral center, and Renner gives an Academy Award worthy performance.

It seems unfair to tell any more about the plot, not only because the outcome is so surprising, but because there’s a narrative switch toward the end that caught me off guard and made everything that happened far more poignant.  This is a modern Western, but not a Western where the good guys necessarily win.  They don’t even all stay alive.

What was it that killed Natalie, you finally ask yourself.  Was it drug-addled, horny jealous men?  Was it the hopelessness of life on the Indian reservation?  Was it the place itself, with its wind, its snow, its silence, more than some men can take?  The movie isn’t really about who did it.  It’s about how tragic the whole thing is, and the way a warrior goes about seeking justice.  Taylor Sheridan’s last movie, Hell or High Water, concerned the same thing.  Maybe the Academy will get it right this year, and give this screenplay the Oscar.