Nestled in snowy hills, a man watches a fraught scene through the scope of his sniper rifle: Native American tribal police, an FBI agent, and the private security crew of an oil rig are caught in a standoff, their fingers inching toward triggers. The parties vie for control of the situation, each claiming jurisdiction over the land on which they all stand. It comes as little surprise that the eventual gunfight ends with dead natives, a heroic white man, and a literally bulletproof white woman. It’s America’s past and present running its course.
The question of jurisdiction and authority blankets Wind River, on-screen and off. The film fundamentally revolves around the socio-political dynamics of an Indian reservation, but its writer and director, Taylor Sheridan, is not indigenous. He is white. That’s not an automatic deal breaker, to be sure—but Sheridan’s construction of the film makes his whiteness inescapable. Wind River ultimately buries the notable fact that indigenous actors play all of the film’s indigenous characters—Gil Birmingham (as Martin Hanson) and Martin Sensmeier (as his son Chip) are particularly stellar—beneath the tired tropes and myths of white saviorship.
The film has not one white savior, but two. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent, hunts predators that terrorize the Wind River Indian Reservation’s livestock. He has ties to Wind River through his ex-wife—an indigenous woman who grew up on the reservation—and generally seems welcome among its residents. FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen), on the other hand, is more overtly other. She announces her foreignness with each under-dressed shiver in the brutal Wyoming winter.
Wind River’s winter not only reveals that Banner is an outsider, but also suggests that Lambert is exceptional in his whiteness. Sheridan and cinematographer Ben Richardson indulge in wide shots of Lambert in the snow, wearing only white, identifiable solely through his face and movement. The result is a melding of Lambert and his environment—he is intimately, almost mystically in tune with nature; he is at home in the frigid wilds that drive other white men mad; he is a master hunter. It’s while tracking a well-fed mountain lion that Lambert finds the body of 18-year-old Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille Chow) frozen in the snow. Hanson, it turns out, had been best friends with Lambert’s daughter—who, years earlier, had died under similarly mysterious circumstances.
Cue the arrival of Banner, sent to figure out if Hanson was murdered, and thereby determine FBI involvement in the investigation of her death. Over the course of the film, Banner grows from green to seasoned—but it’s difficult to get excited about her character development given Wind River’s less generous treatment of indigenous women. Natalie Hanson, for example, experiences characterization only post-mortem; Lambert tells Banner that Hanson was tough, and that she survived the frost longer than most would have. But what good is that to her? The sole sequence in which Hanson is alive—a flashback—subjects her to unnecessarily graphic sexual violence. What’s more, the film’s three other credited indigenous female characters are allowed only to embody familial fracture. At one point, a text overlay states that “While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women.” But for a movie apparently intent on advocating for indigenous women, Wind River has little use for them unless they’re dead or grieving.
Wind River’s inadequate characterization also extends to the reservation more broadly. The film rightly frames the reservation’s destitution as a thoroughly systemic phenomenon, and there are, undoubtedly, real-world analogues to Sheridan’s depiction of squalor and dead-endedness. But pervading Wind River’s understatedly triumphalist framing of Lambert and Banner’s investigation is the notion that the only thing capable of slowing the reservation’s ever-downward spiral is white intervention. And although the film, by making both its rapists and its avengers white, suggests a racial reckoning—an assessment of whiteness by whiteness itself—it doesn’t truly have such a reckoning in mind. Wind River’s project is concerned more with the personal than with the institutional, which leads the film to end with little changed beyond interpersonal relationships. The reservation and its inhabitants remain hamstrung, and Lambert and Banner remain supremely free to come and go. Indeed, through Lambert’s heroism, Wind River does more to absolve whiteness than to condemn it. Whiteness emerges as natural, ever-salvageable. It is divine.
Eventually, Lambert consoles Hanson’s father, Martin, who is wracked with grief and on the verge of committing suicide. Martin confesses to Lambert that he doesn’t know the proper way to put on his “death face,” a decorative mask of paint that the soon-to-be-departed wear. His face is painted blue and white, but it’s profoundly severed from tradition, a makeshift ritual devoid of context. There is no one left to teach him how to leave this world. Lambert can’t talk him through that.
The past year has thrown the question of artistic authority into sharp discussion. In a way, Wind River resembles Dana Schutz’s “Open Casket,” a painting of Emmett Till at his funeral. Both works portray non-white victims in order to invert whiteness, to wield it for creation rather than destruction (albeit, in Wind River, creation through the destruction of evil), to bridge difference rather than invent it. (Of course, Till actually lived and died, whereas Hanson is fictional—but countless indigenous women live and die without notice from white America.) But, due to either execution or context, both Wind River and “Open Casket” center white actors: Lambert and Banner as saviors, Sheridan as supreme empathizer, and Schutz as lightning rod. To communicate with the pain of others is one thing; to set it as a backdrop for the redemption of whiteness is another.
Wind River is a striking, compelling film, which makes its unsatisfactory social politics especially disappointing. Sheridan and Lambert seem genuinely determined to prove how un-white they are—in terms not of race, but of consciousness—and often act admirably as a result. But they stumble in tandem. The two men wipe blood from the snow, but fail to stop and think about the footprints in which they walk. The paths they follow are ancient. They chase the tracks of ghosts.