Saturday, March 03, 2018


Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham
In character as a hunter and a suicidally grieving father.

Wind River is the Wyoming area thought of as an entrance to Yellowstone National Park and the location of the Arapaho Reservation.  Where I am is north of that, next to the Blackfeet Reservation and can be thought of as an entrance to Glacier National Park.  The movie called “Wind River” begins with a Native American young woman frozen to death in the snow, which could easily have happened here.  Except that when a person knows that girl because of teaching English on the rez, knowing the girl’s name and family, it’s different.  When it happens again and again, one takes an interest in a movie on the subject, even if it’s not explanatory so much as archetypal.  

In “Wind River”, the movie, all the elements are there and well done, but blacker than any snow scene ever was — in terms of tragedy.  Natural human emotions — desire, humiliation, racism, violence, grief, strategy, family — exceed efforts to control and stabilize them.  The mechanics in the snow are not that different from the Harvey Weinstein entanglements that kept this movie in limbo for a while.  I’m glad it’s on Netflix now and not just because Tantoo Cardinal and Graham Greene are in it.

There’s something eerie about watching a movie that happens in mountain snow when one’s yard is feet deep in the stuff.  The east slope wilderness of Wind River is quite like this.  Subzero air will freeze your lungs just as quickly here.  There are a lot of dead cattle under these drifts — maybe some people.  It could not have been easy for the actors in this film.

Nor is the reality easy.  Western and Northern Canadians First Nations people are also prey to the constant murderous repetition of frustrated, drunk-and-drugging men hired to do isolated resource work, who take out their destruction on women.  

This plot is easy, the usual hero is well-played by Jeremy Renner (who has the gift and burden of seeming like Daniel Craig’s younger brother) and Elizabeth Olsen (the J.J. Abrams-favored spunky young vampire killer) does a good job of impersonating an unlikely FBI agent.  The only other unlikely element is that their snowmobiles never break down.

In a place like this the harshness of the landscape becomes a weapon, a player in a war for survival that gives humans no mercy.  The plot does a good job of exploiting this.  I’m glad to see an ironic knife blade cutting against the usual sentiment of “beautiful mountains,” with ski-lifts and lodges.  I’m not sure the casual happenstance of young death here will get through to couch potatoes or that any political wave will begin here.  Like “Dances with Wolves”, the main protagonists are white and one of the “Indian” women is Asian.  But people from here will enjoy the ironic by-blow dialogue.  (“Luck lives in the cities.”)  Near the end I particularly enjoyed the two main males sitting in the backyard, side-by-side near the kid’s swings.  The tribal father has painted his face in what he explains is his death face.  The hunter asks, “How did you know to paint it this way?”  (An overdramatic and unlikely pattern of blue on white.)

“I didn’t know.  No one was left alive from the old people who could have told me.  I just made it up.”  He had intended suicide, but changed his mind.  I hope that gets through.

The movie I kept being reminded of was one I saw when I was the age of the victim in this film.  “Track of the Cat” (1954) was based on the novel by Walter Van Tilberg Clark and starred Robert Mitchum.  Three bucks on YouTube.  It’s the early version of this archetype, filmed farther to the south in Colorado.  It’s slightly different dynamics come from a time when women, esp bitter old moms, took a lot of criticism.  Ordinary cougars with kittens are no longer embodiments of evil the way the black panther of the “cat” could be.  For a film study group, showing “Track of the Cat” alongside “Wind River” would offer an excellent evening’s discussion.

At the end of the film there is a sort of public service announcement claiming that there are no statistics about tribal women killed, as distinguished from deaths by accidents.  The reason for the lack of data is the problem of definition and classification.  Until a body is found, the dead are only “missing.”  Whether to classify murder as on the rez or in a city where luck ran out is not taken into account.  The distinction between enrolled and tribe-less, the question of who has jurisdiction, and the abiding shortage of resources all confuse the kind of data that can make legislatures pay attention.

Once about thirty years ago on a tournament day when we were really just passing time in classrooms because attendance is the data for school funding, a few girls began to write the names of the dead and missing people they had known on what was then blackboards.  They filled the space on two sides of the room.  When the teacher came, a man who’d been there for some years, he added several dozen more.  That was before drugs as we know them now.  The major killer was drinking and driving.

Today as then, a major killer everywhere was suicide.  These links should get you to some statistics and other information about that.  Especially notable is this first link to a short video based on basketball and “performed” by the Arlee basketball team.

This one is more of a straight news discussion.

“While there is a great need for more and better data on where violence against Native women occurs, the information available suggests that Native women on tribal lands lack the most government protections from the threat of violence against them. Consider the data below about the fact that assaults against Native women tend to take place at private residences, that a significant number of Native women live on tribal lands (often with their non-Native partners), that the death rate of Native women on some reservations is ten times the national average, that in recent times US Attorneys have declined to prosecute a majority of violent crimes in Indian country, and that tribes do not have the authority to prosecute non-Natives who commit violent crimes on tribal lands.”


I liked “Wind River”, the murder mystery movie, very much and I hope a lot of people watch it, maybe during this current nearly snowbound basketball tournament with teams trapped in motels until the roads clear.  It’s a good consciousness raiser, though as one reviewer remarked, “the killer is not much of a mystery.”  That’s still the basic reality.

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