The Truth Behind This Year's Most Shocking Film, Wind River

Wind River opens on a landscape of white, of cold, of desolation. A pack of coyotes gaze apathetically at a herd of sheep so pale they blend into the Wyoming snow. At the moment every nature documentary has taught us to expect a coyote to lunge and walk away with its bleating lunch between its teeth, we hear a gunshot. The coyote lies in a puddle of red, a shocking smear of color on an otherwise monochromatic landscape.

A professional animal tracker, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), is hired by farmers to protect livestock from prey. By patiently looking at tracks in the snow, Lambert can dispose of mountain lions and wolves. Less easy is catching the forces that prey on humans — forces like poverty, violence, lack of opportunity, grief, depression, suicide, drug addiction, and sexual assault that prey on almost every character on the American Indian reservation in which Wind River is set.

While Lambert can’t use his tracking ability to destroy major sociological constraints, he does what he can. After tracking down a coyote, Lambert follows further tracks in the snow — this time, the tracks lead not to a predator but to a teenage girl, frozen in the icy landscape. As the autopsy shows, the girl had been raped, and then ran barefoot in the snow until her lungs filled with cold air and burst.

Unfortunately, this is a scene Lambert is familiar with. He and his ex-wife, an American Indian from the Wind River reservation, lost their teenage daughter in much the same way four years prior.

Lambert reports his findings back to the reservation’s law enforcement. There are no wails; there are no gasps of surprise. Rather, it seems dismay burrows further down into the wrinkles on the police chief’s face. For a young person to die on the Wind River reservation is not a shock — and that is the shocking part of the story.

For the rest of the film, Lambert aids with rookie FBI agent Jane Banner’s (Elizabeth Olsen) efforts. Together they navigate a terrain of hardship and crime. Effectively, the murdered girl’s parents have lost two children. One, to violence. The other, as we see in detail when Lambert and Jane visit the victim's brother's isolated house, to drug addiction.

I could wax poetic on Wind River’s cinematic virtues. It is a thriller that balances shock and suspense with emotional depth. Thanks to Tyler Sheridan’s script, Wind River’s characters speak dialogue so punchy and powerful you’ll remember their words days later — lines like, "Luck don't live out here. Luck lives in the city."

Yet this piece of art also serves a purpose. What Tyler Sheridan’s film does so well is portray a forgotten community.

“The social issues that Native Americans face are the same as in other parts of the country — domestic abuse, poverty, drug addiction, alcoholism — but on the reservation, no one is watching or listening,” Sheridan told Newsweek.

In Wind River, you’ll be forced to watch, and you’ll be forced to listen. After all, as extreme and disturbing as the events depicted in Wind River are, they’re not fantastical. The plot was inspired by true events.

The Wind River reservation first made news in 2012, when it was the subject of a New York Times expose. The size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, Wind River is Wyoming’s only American Indian reservation. In spite of its beautiful name, the reservation is not something out of a fairy tale.

On the Wind River reservation, life expectancy is 49 years. The unemployment rate is higher than 80%, and the high school dropout rate is 40% higher than the rest of Wyoming. By comparing Wind River to Iraq, where the life expectancy is 69, and to Zimbabwe, which shares Wind River’s unemployment rate, the article emphasizes just how differently the reservations’ 14,000 residents live compared to the rest of United States citizens.

While Wind River may not state these statistics outright, you’ll feel them in the scenes of desperation, drug abuse, and especially in the crimes against women portrayed with such stark intensity.

Sheridan says that he doesn’t want to “preach” to audiences. Yet the movie’s final words — “While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women.” — are designed to haunt. Though Lambert and Jane eventually solve the crime in the film, it's no victory. We’re left knowing that most stories don’t end with the cold feat of revenge performed in Wind River. They’re left dangling, unsolved.

Violence against American Indian women is endemic, on the Wind River reservation and beyond. According to a Department of Justice study, 84% of Native American and Alaskan Native women have experienced violence of some sort; 56% have experienced sexual violence.

Wind River lifts these statistics off the page and animates them into an awful, striking, and completely unforgettable existence.

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