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No river, but plenty of wind

There are many hard choices made in Wind River. Some are cowardly, others heroic. Yet few—especially the final one—are merciful.

Elizabeth Olsen and Jeremy Renner star in "Wind River," directed by Taylor Sheridan.

MPAA Rating: R
USCCB Rating: NR
Reel Rating: 3 out of 5 reels

Wind River begins with a horrific crime committed in a place designed to conceal evil. At least that’s what the perpetrator seems to think. The Wind River Indian Reservation is a sparsely populated region high in the Rocky Mountains in Wyoming where snow covers everything year-round and temperatures dip below zero well into spring. It is a place where only the strong can survive, and even then things don’t always work out. Once a young woman’s body is discovered miles from the nearest town, a harrowing game of cat-and-mouse commences as a seasoned veteran and bewildered newbie try to find the killer. Both will be tested and both will find the measure of will—and both must learn that while Wind River requires strength to survive, interdependence is needed to truly live.

The seasoned veteran is professional tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who kills predators and protects livestock for the Fish and Wildlife Service. He finds the body of 18-year-old Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille) while hunting a cougar and immediately knows something is not right. FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is called down from Las Vegas. Clearly out of her element she must borrow a jacket from Cory’s ex-mother-in-law. “Bring it back,” she says gruffly. “It’s not a gift.” The coroner explains that the teen was raped and beaten multiple times, but that wasn’t what killed her: she had run six miles barefoot in the snow before the blood in her lungs literally froze and suffocated her. “She was a fighter,” Cory whispers. These two uncover layer after layer until the mystery comes to its sudden and violent conclusion. Things are not always what they seem and everyone has something hidden and broken beneath the surface.

Wind River has the best production design of any film I’ve seen this year, which is even more of an accomplishment as its contains very few sets. This was a deliberate decision by art director Neil Spisak and the director of photography Ben Richardson. Most shots are framed as a small human dwarfed by an unforgiving landscape of ice and snow, underlined with a haunting score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. It is not only cold but merciless. Cory spends a great deal of time alone, silently bearing a pain the audience only discovers later in the film, a pain that makes Natalie’s death personal. Every character is just struggling to survive—either openly with violence and anger or more passively with guilt and grief.

This isolation forces not only extreme individualism but harrowing choices. In the outside world, Jane could coast through life, following protocol and letting others make hard decisions. Not here. “Where’s the backup?” she asks the local chief of police. He laughs. They have six officers to cover an area the size of Rhode Island—there is no backup. As the investigation continues, the audience sees how the decisions people make in the face of their suffering shapes their fate. Natalie’s younger brother chooses a life of drugs and withdrawal. Cory confronts him on his wasted potential. When Cory finally meets the killer, he learns that his motives, while selfish and foolish, were in a way caused by the same ache felt by Cory himself.

How do we deal with the pain of an unjust world? Sensing that Natalie’s father (brilliantly played by Gil Birmingham) is falling into a similar chasm, Cory reaches out to him with a speech for the ages:

“I’d like to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. If there’s a comfort, you get used to the pain if you let yourself, I went to a grief seminar in Casper. Don’t know why, just, it hurt so much, I was searching for anything that could make it go away. That’s what I wanted this seminar to do, make it go away.

The instructor come up to me after the seminar was over, sat beside me and said, “I got good news and bad news. Bad news is you’ll never be the same. You’ll never be whole. Ever. What was taken from you can’t be replaced. You’re daughter’s gone. Now the good news, as soon as you accept that, as soon as you let yourself suffer, allow yourself to grieve, You’ll be able to visit her in your mind, and remember all the joy she gave you. All the love she knew. Right now, you don’t even have that, do you?” He said, “that’s what not accepting this will rob from you”.

If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her, my friend. Every one. From her first step to her last smile. You’ll kill ’em all. Take the pain, Take the pain, Martin. It’s the only way to keep her with you.”

There are many hard choices made in Wind River. Some are cowardly, others heroic. Yet few—especially the final one—are merciful. And that is the thing missing in Cory’s wisdom. Only the forgiveness modeled by Christ on the cross can ultimately drive away evil and bring true healing. This doesn’t mean ignoring crime or justly punishing the wicked, but driving away the false assumption that only some are worthy of life.

Wind River is one of the few films in which the closing scene changes the entire meaning of the picture. As Martin and Cory sit and suffer together their losses, a title tells the audience that “the FBI has statistics on every demographic except missing Native American women. Their number remains unknown.” Wind River is a place unjustly ignored, suffering a social and spiritual exile of sorts. I was reminded of St. Marcellin Champagnat’s encounter with Jean-Baptiste, a dying teenager who was deprived of food and the most basic truths of the faith at a time he needed both most. Humanity needs agents of justice like Cory and Jane, but even more needs agents of mercy.

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About Nick Olszyk 185 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.


    • Breaking News!! – It’s playing in town at 1 this afternoon.
      Ticket – $4.50
      Small popcorn – $1.50
      Small Pepsi – $1.50

      Total – $7.50

      Narrow Gauge Cinema, Farmington, Maine, for those who might winder

  1. “… reaches out to him with a speech for the ages” – is this meant ironically? If not, Yuck!

    This is such bad counsel … that there is no healing from grief … Well, maybe in a heartless Nietzschean universe, but NOT in a Catholic one, where divine grace is to be had.

    Would even a high school senior studying in his theology class propose this without an enormous tonnage of irony?

  2. I saw it this afternoon. The best movie I’ve seen in the last few years. The ending is superb. This is a good review by Mr. Olszyk – he gets it.

    Anyone who wishes to comment should see the film first.

  3. Even Olszyk gives only a 60% rating. Which is not that great since he usually likes everything.

    But aside from all the paltry quibbles over whether I have the right to comment on a review’s prose, without having having subjected myself to the review’s object, I recommend reading AE Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad,” poem LXII.

    • The speech to which you object so strongly is that of one man who has lost his daughter of 1/2 Indian blood to violent circumstances to another man whose daughter is 100% indian and who was gang-raped and ran away and eventually froze to death.

      “The right to comment on a review’s prose”.


      Please – see the movie.

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