“Wind River” is a murder mystery that is about a lot more than a murder case. In fact, that may very well be the least interesting thing about this movie.
“Wind River” is more about isolation, grief, and loss. It’s also about survival in the most extreme of conditions, geographically, socially, and psychologically.
The setting is what’s most striking in the film, the snowy high mountains of Wyoming and the rather desolate lowland valleys. It’s an often harsh reality for mankind to have to navigate, with its freezing weather, its unpredictable blizzards, and its mostly uninhabitable wide-open spaces.
Into this rather bleak landscape the U.S. Government plopped the Wind River Indian Reservation a century ago. The Native Americans who call this place home, do so with gritty determination and/or resignation. As the tribal police chief says, you either survive or surrender.
The movie opens with a Native American teenage girl frantically running across an enormous snow-encrusted stretch of land. She’s barefoot, she’s bleeding, she keeps falling and getting up, falling and getting up, until she just can’t get up anymore. While this scene of terror plays out, we hear her reciting a poem about being “frozen in the mud of the real.”
A tracker for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Jeremy Renner) finds her body the next day, and because it’s on tribal (federal) land, an FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) is flown in to investigate.
This rookie FBI agent from Fort Lauderdale is clearly out of her element in these severe conditions, but with the help of the wildlife agent, she eventually learns how to conduct a murder investigation in impossibly snowy terrain.
In the process, she also learns about the wildlife agent’s painful personal history, the unsolved death of his own daughter who met her end much like the woman whose murder they’re now investigating.
The murder does get solved, amidst a potent dose of violence, but it’s a disappointing climax. The “whodunnit” aspect is straightforward and not all that interesting.
But that may be part of the movie’s point. Despite the resolution of the crime, there’s no real catharsis because life this hard stays hard. Whether grieving over the death of an individual or bemoaning the loss of an entire people, the characters of “Wind River” recognize the plight of man. And the harsh weather is an apt metaphor for that. The best we can hope for is survival.