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Wind River and the Exploitation Debate

Wind River works as a great example of the debate brought up when discussing the role art and entertainment within the context of its subject matter. Specifically, What responsibility does any creative medium hold to its subject matter? And when does the line cross from respectful representation into exploitation of that subject?

In the case of Wind River that debate could be had within the context of its main narrative, with FBI agent investigating the murder of a young native woman on a Wyoming reserve.

Its two hour run time is a haunting and violent experience that doesn’t offer a lot of answers to the few questions it asks. And those answers are small in a way that felt honest, upsetting and true. But there’s a caveat that comes with that truth, in so much that it’s what I understand to be true. Which is really nothing at all. I don’t understand the world Wind River is exploring because I’ve never lived it, I’ve never had to. But it made me hurt, feel anger and disgust; it made me suck in air through clenched teeth because in the back of my mind I understood Wind River has been many people’s reality.

Herein lies the debate. What moral efficacy comes with creating a work of fiction and consequently profiting off the back of a reality many people know all too well? No matter how respectful you go about doing it, is it okay? I’ve always believed that if you have a story to tell you should try and make it so, but there a valid question to be asked as to whether or not does this specific story need to be told? I think it does with Wind River. I don’t think it ever exploits the nature of the problems these communities face. In my mind it shows them in a frank manner, never lingering long enough to shout “hey look at the terrible things we’re making you aware of.”

In terms of the quality of the film, it’s outstanding. Wind River comes way of Hell or High Water’s writer, Tyler Sheridan, This time he’s behind the camera as well as assuming script responsibilities. And goddamn if this isn’t a pretty looking movie when it comes to shot composition. Wide sweeping shots of the Wyoming winter really set up an quiet and eerie atmosphere. The violence when it erupts is roaring and unflinching. Much like High Water and Sicario which Sheridan also wrote, the violence in Wind River is used to explore the actions of men and women in the midst of unquestionable evil and the areas of grey within. Like his other two movies, Sheridan's use of silence is prophetic and terrifying, with a subtle score from the incorrigible Nick Cave and Warren Ellis offering brief whispers and droning strings.

It’s a narrative full of hurt and shattered families, with Jeremy Renner often emoting some version of out here you survive or die. Speaking of Renner, the performances throughout are great. I think this is the best from Renner I’ve ever seen and Elizabeth Olsen as FBI agent Jane Banner who really sold the fish out of water scenario. Longtime character actor Graham Greene has a small but important role as the reserve’s police chief. The cast is rounded out by the always great Gil Birmingham, Julia Jones and Hugh Dillon.

Now there’s a few things that have popped up in other reviews regarding some of the negative that I thought I’d address just because I don’t necessarily agree with them. Other critics have claimed that Olsen’s character has everything explained to her and often seems helpless. I suppose this is an indirect way of calling her a weak character surrounded by macho men. But in my mind it’s quite the opposite. Olsen’s Jane Banner is a very strong character who doesn’t take shit from anyone. But at the same time, she does find herself completely out of her element. Her character works in Las Vegas and hails from Florida, so there’s a few lines where she admits she’s never been in a snowstorm and has never stepped anywhere near Wyoming. Olsen specifically asks Renner’s fish and wildlife officer Cory Lambert for help because he knows the land and she doesn’t. Olsen asks for help because she needs to solve a very fucked up problem, not because she’s a weak character.

For me, the only real problems were some clunky dialogue here and there as well as Sheridan could have shaved 15 minutes off the running time and not have lost a narrative beat. But other than that, there isn’t much more I can really complain about.

Wind River: is hard to watch and did make me squeamish at certain parts. But I think it’s worthwhile watching, in theatres if you can. It tells a story that warrants a discussion after seeing it, so go with a few friends who can have that conversation.

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