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My Problems with Wind River: Pt. I — Masculinity

I never really liked Wind River. The first time I watched it though, I thought it was just a bit disappointingly rote, without the nail-biting tension of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s previous works like Sicario. I probably ascribed this discrepancy to Sheridan’s inexperience as a first time director, and lead actors Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen’s status as poor substitutes for Emily Blunt and Benicio del Toro. However, I found myself starting to return to the movie over the following years. Not because it was growing on me, quite the opposite. It had got it’s teeth into me. It had got under my skin. I had a bone to pick with this movie.

This two-part series is intended as an exploration of the ways Wind River fails to effectively teach its progressive themes and how it instead falls back on regressive and inaccurate dominant cultural narratives. The first part will deal with the films portrayal of masculinity, and the second, longer entry will focus primarily on the topic of race.

Despite its attempts to raise awareness of inter-sectional feminist issues, Wind River represents a more regressive depiction of sexual violence by exploring its theme almost exclusively through the perspective of its male protagonist, who is perpetually shielded by a stoicism that the film never effectively challenges. It also heavily reinforces regressive conceptions of gender roles in a way that is typical of the film’s writer-director Taylor Sheridan’s other work in the genre. This results in a complicated picture sending mixed messages about masculinity, where the narrative contradicts what the film is supposedly trying to tell us. Wind River is an effective example of some of the difficulties modern films are having reconciling concepts of masculinity with supposedly liberal ideologies.

The film is a procedural thriller, structured from a standpoint of empathy for women and with Native Americans. The film follows Corey Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a white professional hunter who agrees to assist FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) in her investigation into the death of Natalie Hanson, (Kelsey Chow) a Native American woman, with the covert goal of exacting revenge on her killers on behalf of Natalie’s father Martin (Gil Birmingham).

Wind River was the directorial debut of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. Sheridan received acclaim for his previous writing work on the films Hell or High Water and Sicario as well as the latter’s sequel Sicario: Day of the Soldado. In Wind River we see many tropes that appear in Sheridan’s other work, such as its police procedural elements, law enforcers breaking the law to achieve their goals, and invocations of frontier mythology. Specifically relevant to the subject under discussion are the ways that both Sicario and Wind River present their female leads, and imply threats of sexualised violence against the two women as a form of punishment for failure in a male dominated profession.

Wind River and Sicario both feature female federal law enforcers who are defined by their inexperience and naivete in comparison to their hyper-competent male partners. In both instances, Sheridan engineers a scenario where a naïve and inexperienced female is rescued from certain death at the hands of a sexualised male attacker by her armed and ruthless male colleague. In both cases, the male colleague’s presence is concealed from both the other characters in the scene, and the audience, up until the moment of their intervention. This puts both Sicario and Wind River within the context of what Candida Yates described as the “rescue-romance” in Masculine Jealousy and Contemporary Cinema: movies where the male hero saves the female from violence at the hands of another male and is rewarded by, if not love, at least a debt of gratitude.

In the final scene of Sicario—a film I greatly enjoy on the whole, although not its comparatively brainless sequel—the protagonist Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is confronted by her male colleague Alejandro (Benicio del Toro) who tells her: “You should move to a small town, where the rule of law still exists. You will not survive here. You’re not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now.” This scene somewhat mirrors the final farewell between the protagonists Cory Lambert and Jane Banner in Wind River, where, as Banner is recovering in the hospital after being rescued by Lambert, he tells her: “Wolves don’t kill the unlucky deer, they kill the weak ones”.

These two films offer narratives where female characters are presented as ill-equipped to deal with the realities of policing and are violently intimidated and physically punished by predatory males for their trespass, before finally being spared at the last moment through the interventions of a supposedly ‘good’ older male, who rescues them through violence before reinforcing the viewpoint that their agency is unwanted in such thriller narratives.

This is a common and established trope in the Western genre, described by Susan Hatty’s chapter in Masculinitites, Violence and Culture (2000) “Frontier Nation: Men at the Edge”:

Westerns are a masculine protest against feminine domesticity and the Christian sacrifice and reform celebrated in the late 19th century woman’s novel. Westerns […] can be seen as a counterpoint to the emotional sensibilities of this literature and also as an attempt to deny, or even eradicate, femininity in American popular culture.

Therefore, Sheridan’s invocation of the Western canon to deal with the invisibility of violence against indigenous women in popular culture could have had some significant relevance and potential for revisionism. However, the degree to which his films remain traditional Westerns that still deny the role of women in these narratives undermines his films’ ability to make progressive statements. As with Sicario, Wind River makes clear that the Frontier is no place for a woman, with the standing of the heroines of both films constantly diminished by their male co-stars.

To examine the portrayal of masculinity in Wind River it is first crucial to note that the film’s hero Cory Lambert is narratively speaking a “flat character”—he does not have a character arc. He is presented as hardy, highly competent and uncomplicatedly heroic from the start and remains so for the duration of the film. He is functionally the “impact character” from whose example the supporting characters learn. This is most clearly seen when he comforts his grieving friend Martin after finding Martin’s daughter Natalie, raped and murdered.

The advice he gives Martin is:

I got some good news, and I got some bad news. The bad news is, you’re never gonna be the same, you’re never gonna be whole. Not ever again. You lost your daughter and nothing’s ever going to replace that. Now the good news is, as soon as you accept that, you’ll let yourself suffer. You’ll allow yourself to visit her in your mind. And you’ll remember all the love she gave, all the joy she knew. The point is Martin, you can’t steer from the pain. If you do, you’ll rob yourself. You’ll rob yourself of every memory of her.

Although this advice has the potential to challenge the way male characters in Westerns deal with their emotions onscreen, it is not reinforced by the contextualizing of the narrative. Despite the fact that he is advocating the value of opening oneself up to emotionality, the advice is phrased in the manner of man-to-man tough-love platitudes, with Cory continually pausing to compose himself. Even when extolling the advantages of confronting one’s own pain, and in front of another grieving father, he fights to maintain his mask. Renner’s performance remains as stoic here as throughout the rest of the film.

Jeremy Renner and Gil Birmingham sit on the ground in front of a swingset in Wind River

This scene also displays some ambivalence about men seeking help with their feelings in itself. Although Cory is comforting Martin and telling him about how he found comfort in the words of another man, his introductory tone and language are almost ashamed of this:

I went to a grief seminar…in Caspar…d’you know that? I dunno why…just wanted the bad to go away. Wanted answers to questions that couldn’t be answered.

In spite of the fact he is acknowledging that the experience helped him, he is dismissive and contemptuous of grief seminars, feeling the need to defend having been to one and distance himself from the acknowledging of weakness and open displays of vulnerability associated with them. This further contributes to the film’s central failing as a feminist text, that its characters talk a lot about their feelings, but the workings of the narrative tell a different story, where the most unfeeling character is most celebrated.

This is the inherent contradiction in Wind River’s representation of masculinity. We might argue that the film is aware of this character fault, attempting to present Cory as a man who failed to suffer and is warning Martin not to make his same mistake, but his stoicism is never challenged by the narrative and his behaviour is reinforced by the glorification of his potency as a hero. As a result, the film undermines its own message, telling audiences about the value of their emotions while showing them the strength and efficacy that results from not feeling, as it is the stoical Cory who saves the day and avenges Natalie’s rape when more sensitive, feminine characters are unable to.

Jeremy Renner takes aim as Cory Lambert in Wind River

Wind River features a kind of twist as to the identity of the rapist. We hear about Natalie’s white boyfriend Matt (Jon Bernthal), who has been missing since her disappearance and he becomes the primary suspect until he is also found dead. Later, as Banner is waiting outside a cabin to meet a new suspect—a man named Pete (James Jordan), who we later learn is the actual rapist—we are introduced to a character as he is shaving inside the cabin. He is shirtless, bearded and built with intimidating muscles. However, when he comes to answer the door it is revealed that this is not Pete but the as yet unseen Matt, Natalie’s loving boyfriend who was killed defending her.

This scene—actually a flashback—plays with the audience’s expectations of what a rapist looks like, presuming an audience would believe a rapist to be manly and physically powerful and then undercutting this supposition by revealing that this man is not the villain and is in fact a model boyfriend. This twist acts as a rejection of the idea that a rugged masculinity is connected with mistreatment of women as the overtly masculine Matt is contrasted against the ineffectual, hysterical and immature Pete.

This jolt to the audience’s expectations functions to challenge their supposed assumptions for pre-judging men as abusers by using film language to lead them to the presumption that Matt is the rapist and then revealing his innocence. This could be read as a reactionary response to the challenge to masculinity presented by the specter of rape in the film, where the masculinity of Matt is temporarily suspected only in order to be exonerated.

The real rapists are Matt’s friends and co-workers, principally Pete, who shares a trailer with him. Natalie’s rape takes place when, as we see in this flashback, Pete and the others returned home unexpectedly, drunkenly walking in on Matt and Natalie in bed together. The film presents an effectively uncomfortable scenario as the sexually frustrated Pete becomes increasingly intrusive with Natalie while the others do nothing to intervene. The situation escalates and becomes violent, ultimately ending with Natalie, having been raped, running home through the wintry night and freezing to death.

The social problems that the film seems to be addressing are usually framed as products of urban life, and the resolution offered is found in the natural order represented by the frontier wilderness that Cory embodies. Agent Banner arrives from Las Vegas, unequipped for the Wyoming weather conditions and is shown through the narrative to be unsuited to the harshness of life there. The corrupting influence of city life is also shown in the graffiti strewn drug den where Natalie’s wayward brother is found. The most notable example though is in the final confrontation with Pete, who when challenged for his behaviour, hysterically laments that he raped Natalie because there was nothing else to do:

You don’t know what it’s like! Out here in this frozen hell. There’s no nothin’ to do. No nothin’. Ain’t no women. No fun. There’s just f—-n’, just f—-n’ snow. And f—-n’ silence. That’s all.

Pete represents the figure of the rapist in the film, but also a chaotic, soft urban masculinity unable to deal with the brutal natural order either mentally or physically. He is a reversal of the hillbilly rapist trope as seen in films such as I Spit On Your Grave and Sudden Impact dissected by Peter Lehmen in his 1993 work, or the nihilistic rural violence of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s (1974) Sawyer family as described by Carol Clover in her seminal book Men Women and Chainsaws (1987). This time it is the urban chaos that is rejected, in contrast to the serene masculine authority represented by Cory and the sublime natural order that so terrifies Pete.

The resolution to Pete’s character is that Cory leaves him to die in the same manner Natalie was: “I’m going to give you the same chance she got”. Left to walk home barefoot through the snow, he dies of the cold in seconds. This leads us back to the film’s idea of strength: “Wolves don’t kill the unlucky deer, they kill the weak ones”. This scene underlines another incoherence in the way Wind River understands the idea of strength. Much focus is placed on the strength Natalie displays in running barefoot through the snow, but she still dies, and is therefore characterised by this line as “weak”. This is typical of the problem often faced when films attempt to build narratives of female empowerment around premises of sexual assault. As stated by Diane Shoos in her book Domestic Violence in Hollywood Film:

This is the dichotomy to be confronted when depicting victims escape from abuse, emphasising the need for strength on the part of the victim, but equally acknowledging and providing for, the weakness instilled by victimhood.

Like its attempts to advocate male emotional openness, Wind River’s celebration of the strength displayed by assault victims is undercut by its strict adherence to Western thriller conventions. The film enforces ideas of absolutes and natural order, its core belief being that the environment in which the film is set mercilessly punishes any who do not have the “strength” to survive. The implication of course being that neither Natalie, nor Pete, nor Banner, who survives only through Lambert’s intervention, were strong enough to survive in the wilderness, while Lambert himself, is. Not only is it our male hero who dispatches the rapist villains, but the killing blow is delivered by the elements themselves, the final rapist freezing to death in the same manner as his victim.

Wind River, even in its very title, venerates a natural order that brutally punishes all but the manliest and in which the undisciplined, chaotic, unmanly urban characters such as Pete and Banner cannot survive.

Although typical of an identifiable approach to sexual assault in genre fiction, where positive, ordered masculine archetypes are juxtaposed against the negative ones, to whom the behaviour of sexual assault is assigned, Wind River is somewhat atypical in its date of release and the comparative lack of negative criticism it has received, with many focusing on its portrayal of male grief as a positive.

However, Wind River is a particularly good example of a defensive male approach to this subject matter, as among its many genre tropes, it presents a portrait of masculinity that forms a de facto rejection of the proposition that the male hero of Hollywood myth is in any way problematic. It reinforces traditional gender roles, disavowing open displays of feeling as being healthy behaviour for male characters or authoritative, dangerous work as befitting females. As a result, its attempts to discuss issues of sexual violence against indigenous women, in a narrative that so effectively silences women of all backgrounds, comes across as unconvincing, condescending and dated in the context of 2017. Ultimately, despite its apparent attempts to advocate emotional openness, Wind River ends up merely continuing the veneration of the stoical masculine hero of Western myth.

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Written by Hal Kitchen

A reviewer of music and films, I am a graduate of the University of Kent Canterbury where I have a 1st class BA in Liberal Arts and will soon have an MA in Film, specializing in film and gender theory. Whilst at Kent I was the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and run a Letterboxd account. I joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020.

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