Where does Wind River’s Jane Banner, FBI Agent, (Elizabeth Olson) fit into the mix of marginalized Native Americans and a white Game Tracker (Jeremy Renner) with a significant loss of his own? And, who was she anyway, coming out of nowhere in all her conspicuously dissimilar blonde beauty? We never really know. The film, with all its poignancy, sadness, and brutality left me with this one big question (one I thought would be answered, but wasn’t): If Jane Banner was so passionate in her desire to find the killer, what happened in her own history to make that so? What were her personal motivations? Wind River is a compellingly powerful film. Why didn’t we have even the slightest connection to something – a loss, a trauma – in a woman so different? But one who seemed to resonate deeply with heartbreak. The film would have been stronger for it.
Frozen Wasteland of Grief
Grief can be a frozen wilderness, a wasteland of loss, a white snowy land that goes on forever. This is where the film begins. And, this is where we see what’s been done to a young Native American girl. Yet, in the beginning, we don’t yet know why she’s running, barefoot in the snow, with no one to help her. What we find is horrifying, brutal, and emblematic of what the white world has done to Native Americans. We don’t know until later that the soon dead 18-year-old is Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), Martin Hanson’s daughter (Gil Birmingham). And the best friend of the also dead, half Native American, daughter of Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) the Game Tracker who finds her.
Loss & Sorrow
Loss and sorrow are everywhere in Wind River. Grief is hard to manage. Some can and some can’t. And we see the various struggles with loss. Cory’s ex-wife, Wilma (Julia Jones) is getting out of town, “never setting foot in this place again,” away from all reminders of their daughter Emily. Her mother clings to reminders of her granddaughter. When she lends Emily’s snow clothes to the unprepared-for-severe-winter Jane Banner – she sternly tells her: “bring them back, this is not a gift.” Natalie’s mother, Annie (Althea Sam) is at first hysterical and slashing at herself. By the end of the film, she lies sadly on Natalie’s bed amidst old photos of Natalie and Emily in happier days.
Cory has faced his grief and is trying to go on after attending a grief group and learning how to grieve. He tells Martin: “I’d like to tell you it gets easier, it doesn’t. If there’s any comfort, it’s just getting used to the pain … let yourself suffer you’ll get through it and visit her in your memory. If you rob yourself of the pain, you’ll rob yourself of the memories.”
But, despite Cory’s advice, Martin can’t tolerate his sadness. At the end of the film, he has his “death face” on, painted in war paint; ready to join his dead daughter. That is, until his estranged drug-addicted son Chip (Martin Sensmeir) calls from the police station and needs him again; Martin has a reason to live.
Faces of Grief
Grief is the heart of Wind River. And, these are the things we see. People grieving and those who have caused their grief. “War” between the white Oil Rig workers and the Native Americans who inhabit the land. We see grief and we see love. The love between Natalie and Matt (Jon Bernthal), a tender white man, also dead. Eaten by vultures where he fell into the cold country trying to find her. We see the love between Cory and Martin, different but friends. Bonded by the friendship between their daughters and by their similar losses. We see the enduring grief of grandparents. Native Americans displaced to frozen land, robbed of opportunities. We see parents robbed of their daughters, brothers of sisters.
There is much to grieve. We, watching, feel it in the film and grieve too, for those forced to live in snow and silence. Along with Cory and Martin, we grieve for their daughters. In this Taylor Sheridan is successful. We feel these grieving characters deeply. And, we understand Cory’s quiet, calculated revenge against Pete Mickens (James Jordan). Pete, one of the Oil Rig guards; whose drunken hate and envy of Natalie and Matt’s love led him to violent rape, forcing Natalie to run miles, barefoot in the snow. Cory: “… knew that girl. She’s a fighter. No matter how far you think she ran; she ran farther.” We know that too.
But we don’t know Jane Banner.
Why Is Jane Banner A Fighter?
Jane Banner is a fighter; we find that much out. But, we never know how or why she became that fighter. Nor do we ever discover what gives her empathy and sensitivity to these Native American’s plight. Or her determination to hunt down a young girl’s rapist and killer. Where did she learn about suffering? I left the theater, both moved and baffled.
We know Jane Banner came from Florida – alligator country, she calls it – and she fights as hard to live as Natalie fought for her life. She fights as hard as Cory fights for justice. But, both Cory and Natalie’s reasons are easily inferred in the film. Natalie, because she’d been given the fight against oppression. And, also against hatred. Fighting for a family of people beaten down without much fight left. Cory for his daughter’s death, for Natalie’s, and for: “My family’s people; forced here. Snow and silence, all they know.”
Yet, we have no clue why Jane Banner is as tough – or as sensitive – as she is. No clue at all.
Psychoanalysts & Screenwriters
I’m a psychoanalyst. I make links to what makes this person feel the way they feel or do what they do? And, it’s my job to look to their history, dreams, behavior, and their fantasies. It’s in my professional DNA. Looking and finding clues is, especially, what I love about my work. It allows me to help those who need my help. I look, so I can understand what forces motivate them and make them who they are. This is what I do in my work. I can’t help it, it’s also what I do when I watch a film.
I don’t know Taylor Sheridan, but clearly, he wrote Wind River because of something he felt strongly about. To highlight the tragedy of disappeared young Native American women whose disappearances are never documented. As if they vanish into the thin air of disregard, racism, and indifference to their plight. Seemingly, as if their lives mean nothing. Something about this touched Taylor Sheridan. He must have had his reasons.
Psychoanalysts and screenwriters could make a good team. Sometimes a character needs a therapist as a writer friend of mine once said. Jane Banner, FBI Agent, needed help. Her character’s personal motivations remain a mystery. A psychoanalyst would offer another pair of eyes.
I admire Taylor Sheridan’s vision. I admire him for taking on a subject that is tragically hidden from our sight. We’re all much better for his efforts. I only wish he’d consulted a psychologist for Jane Banner, a pivotal character in this film. For Jane to be just another white person who cares isn’t enough. Why she understood grief so well – and how she became such a fighter – would have gone a long way to give Wind River the additional “Aha moment” it deserves.