Two actors I love, and a writer-director I don’t. I’m not saying I hate Taylor Sheridan, but his previous films haven’t really appealed to me. But this one seemed different. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for snow.
I certainly got lots of snow.
Two thirds of this film is really good. It’s just a shame the other third spoils it. One moment we are in a world where cops care about doing their jobs, where a woman can assert her authority because she has that right and where everyone is respected for what they bring to the table. Then suddenly it’s like we’re in the bizzaro version of that reality. To get respect you now need a penis, or to behave like you do. Law and order matter about as much as they did at the Alamo, which the blood on the snow suddenly resembles. And the film never quite recovers.
But it starts so well! A beautiful poem is read while a young girl runs for her life through the snow. Sheep graze in a snowy field while wolves look on. But it’s the wolves who die, shot by an unseen hunter. We are in a world of contrasts, where nothing is quite what it seems on the surface.
The plot revolves around the death of a Native American teenager on the Wind River reservation in Wyoming. Elizabeth Olsen is Jane Banner, an FBI agent sent in to investigate and it’s obvious from the start that she’s way out of her depth. She isn’t a local agent; she just happened to be the closest when the call came. So she’s driving a hired SUV, wearing a pantsuit and high heels and knows nothing about life on a Reservation. The local cop obviously thinks they have sent an incompetent deliberately. Local hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) tells Jane bluntly that if she doesn’t change her clothes the cold will kill her before they can reach the murder scene. But he then offers help and proper gear.
What comes across strongly at this point is that it’s not disrespect because she’s a woman, but rather because she’s an outsider. There’s a suggestion, though no specifics, that past experience has taught them not to expect help from the FBI, which tracks with what I know about reservation life (though I should also stress that isn’t a lot).
We later learn that the dead girl, Natalie, technically died of exposure. While all agree it’s a murder (no one voluntarily flees into a snowy night barefoot and poorly dressed), it has to be on the death certificate for the FBI to investigate and the coroner can’t do that. Jane stays to investigate anyway, enlisting Lambert because he knows the terrain. But Lambert has reasons of his own for getting involved: Natalie’s death echoes a tragedy in his own past and Natalie was known to him, too. He is white, but his (deceased) wife and his son are Native American and he considers the tribe his family. (They don’t all return that feeling.)
Jane’s decision to stay earns her the respect of the locals, although she remains an outsider and makes mistake after mistake, some relatively trivial, some serious. But she is a good investigator and with Lambert’s support she makes the connections that will lead her to Natalie’s killer.
Unfortunately that’s when the movie does its weird testosterone-fuelled turn into really bad Western, with tough, competent Jane abruptly recast as damsel in distress. It’s a real shame.
I don’t know nearly enough to say if this is a realistic portrayal of reservation life, but it feels authentic. The Native American characters are mostly played by actors of the right ethnicity and they are three dimensional characters, each with his or her own moment to shine. It’s not a romantic portrait. I was particularly struck by the moment when Lambert comes upon Natalie’s father with his face painted blue and white; he says it’s his “death mask” but moments later confesses it’s not authentic. There is no one left to teach the old traditions so he made this one up (the design, not the mask, I think). It’s a small moment that says a lot about what the USA has done to its native cultures.
A good film, but spoiled by some uneven writing in the third act.