Violence, Grief and a Harsh Conscience in “Wind River”

by Herbert H. Stein

In the past couple of years, there has been a flurry of films that center around grief. The last “Rocky” movie, Creed, presented Rocky as a somewhat broken man, grieving for his late wife and his friends. It shows him returning to life—choosing to seek treatment for a cancer he had developed—through his relationship with the son of his late opponent and friend, Apollo Creed. A Man Called Ove, a Swedish film based on a novel of the same name, centered around a man who has suffered a series of tragic losses. We see him as a grouchy old man fiercely enforcing the safety rules of his gated community and periodically attempting to hang himself. He, too, is brought back to an enjoyment of life through his relationship with neighbors who would not let him isolate and a community that came together around him.

These two films, based on grief, nevertheless give us a somewhat hopeful sense that the hopelessness of grief can be ameliorated through contact with others. In each of them, the grieving man is forced back into life by the persistence of others who care about him. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea leaves us with more of a sense that some loss- es cannot be repaired. As the film develops, we learn that its central character has lost his small children in a fire caused by his neglect. He, too, is brought back into life by the necessity of having to care for his dead brother’s teenage son, but we are left empathizing with his ongoing pain.

Most recently we have Wind River, a film that, from my perspective, moves beyond these others in enveloping the viewer in a mood of grief and distress. There are several observable contributors to this mood, not the least of which is the film’s setting, the Indian reservation in Wyoming that gives Wind River its name. To say that Wind River is bone chill- ing, which it is, is to engage in word play. The entire film takes place in a setting with nightly sub-zero temperatures and a continual vista of frozen snow by day. The death around which the film’s mystery revolves is in large part caused by the cold. As the film progressed, I found myself feeling colder and seri- ously wondered if the theater’s air conditioning was being amped up to support the imagery.

But we can’t just blame it on the weather. The film gives us an intense look at the often hard lives of the people who live there, people whose lives are torn apart by drugs and violence, poverty and inadequate government services. It offers a cultural statement about the way in which our society treats this group of people whose only crime is that their ancestors lived here before we arrived. (They, indeed, might make a case for the harmful effects of the centuries of immigrants to this land.)

Wind River is on its surface a murder mystery and a violent thriller. It opens to a girl running at night, fast, desperately, in the snow. She falls forward and we see blood on her face, then gets up and continues to run towards a tree line. We will soon see her frozen body discovered in the snow, setting off a search for whoever raped her and from whom she was running to her death. On the way, we will experience two frightening shootouts in close quarters as well as the mayhem that leads to that girl, Natalie’s death. These scenes are not staged with the prettiness of an old western shootout, but rather with the punch in the gut horror of real violence. They seem designed to fill the viewer with terror and sorrow.

The official investigators of this crime are Ben, the Tribal Police Chief, an older native American man with a dry humor and a real caring for his job that comes through his sardonic surface, and Jane Banner, a young blonde FBI agent sent from Las Vegas, actually based in Florida, whom we are meant to see as badly out of her element.

But the real detective in this mystery is a tracker and hunter for the Fish and Wildlife Service, Cory Lambert. He finds the body while tracking mountain lions that have been attacking the local cattle and it’s his tracking that leads ultimately to the killers. Cory sees his mission in life to track predators, animal and human. At the core of this mission is grief, an emotion that pervades Wind River.

Grief is the inevitable result of violence, and we see it and experience it from start to finish. In that opening scene, as we see Natalie running desperately in the snow, we hear a female voice softly reciting a poem. We will learn that the poem was written by a teenage girl, not the one who is running, but by her best friend, Cory Lambert’s daughter, whose body was found in that snow three years earlier. That mystery will not be solved. Essentially, as the film evolves, we experience the shared grief of both families and experience the inevitable effects on their lives.

We enter into this grief at first unknowingly, as we follow Cory on his way to the discovery of the body. He first goes to the home of his estranged wife, Wilma, in order to pick up his young son. We see and hear things that would only make full sense to us later when we learn of their loss; a glance at a photograph of a young adolescent girl, a tension between the two adults, mixed with words of caring, an anxious warning from Wilma when she hears that Corey will be taking their son to visit her parents on the Wind River reservation to keep a close eye on the boy on the reservation. We sense some level of depression and anxiety, but do not yet know the cause.

Somewhat later, we get a further hint of the cause from Cory’s mother-in-law. When Jane, the FBI agent meets Cory and Ben at the home of Cory’s in-laws, she is badly under- dressed for the cold. The older woman offers her a proper set of clothes, telling her, “You return them the minute you get back. They ain’t a gift,” explaining that they were her granddaughter’s clothing. Without knowing the full significance, we may miss the sad look on the grieving grandmother’s face when she sees Jane in her granddaughter’s parka. At some point, we see a picture of the adolescent girl in that same parka.

Grief is palpable when we see the investigators with Natalie’s parents. Martin, her father, expresses his grief initially with anger and defiance. Jane, the somewhat awkward out of place blonde FBI agent hears Martin tell Ben that he had not known she was missing and that he had not met his daughter’s boyfriend. We know by this time that Natalie had been raped before she ran out into the snow.

Jane: Why would you let her stay with a man you’ve never met? A man whose name you don’t even know. I look around, see all these photos …

Martin: She was an adult.

Jane: Barely.

Martin says something in Shoshone.

Jane: What does that mean?

Ben: It’s not good.

Jane: I don’t mean to offend you. I’m trying to understand the dynamic, Mr. Hanson. I’m trying to help.

Martin: Why is it whenever you people try to help, it starts with insults? (He pauses.) I don’t know why she wouldn’t tell me. But she was eighteen. I chose to trust her. I chose wrong. (my italics)

With those three words we can feel his grief and guilt beneath the angry defiance.

Jane then asks if she can speak with the girl’s mother, who is behind a closed bedroom door. There is no answer when she calls through the door, but when she opens it, we see the mother sitting on the edge of her bed holding a knife, crying bitterly, covered with blood from self inflicted wounds. Jane quickly closes the door, obviously shaken.

A moment later, we see Martin and Cory standing outside the house, embracing and talking. We now sense that they share a common bond of grief and Cory makes it explicit as he tries to offer Martin the benefit of his experience.

Corey: I’d like to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. If there’s a comfort, you get used to the pain if you let yourself. I went to a grief seminar in Casper. Don’t know why, just … It hurt so much, I was searching for anything that could make it go away. That’s what I wanted this seminar to do—make it go away. The instructor come up to me after the seminar was over, sat beside me and said, “I got good news and bad news. Bad news is you’ll never be the same. You’ll never be whole. Ever. What was taken from you can’t be replaced. You’re daughter’s gone. … Now the good news as soon as you accept that, as soon as you let yourself suffer, allow yourself to grieve, … you’ll be able to visit her in your mind, and remember all the joy she gave you. All the love she knew. Right now, you don’t even have that, do you? He said, “that’s what not accepting this will rob from you.” If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her, my friend. Every one. From her first step to her last smile. You’ll kill’em all. Take the pain … Take the pain, Martin. It’s the only way to keep her with you.

I can’t say I’ve heard a better commentary on coping with grief in a film.

We also experience the grief when Natalie’s brother, Chip, learns of her death. He, himself, has been lost to drugs, living in a drug den. The investigators find him there. He appears to be sullen and depressed, perhaps shut off from feeling; but that doesn’t shield him from his grief when he hears about Natalie.

Ben, Jane and Cory start to question Chip.

Jane: Tell me what happened to your sister, Chip.

Chip: What? What happened to her?_
Ben: Don’t play dumb._
Chip: About what? What happened to her?

What did those crackers do?_
Jane: What cracker? Was she seeing a white

guy? Do you know him? Do you know who he is? Do you know his name, Chip?

Chip: You said was. Why did you say was? (Chip looks up at Cory.) What happened? Why did she say was? … She just said was. Why did she say was?

Corey kneels beside him and tells him softly, pointing out towards the mountain, “Because I found her raped and killed right over there, son. That’s why.”

Chip screams out an elongated “What!” he continues to wail loudly, his shock and grief palpable to any viewer with any empathy.

The setting, the cold, the bleak landscapes covered in snow, the images of poverty and drug abuse, hard lives, the violence, carnage at times, and the persistent atmosphere of grief; these are features of the film that are presented to us in full view, features that contribute in obvious ways to the film’s tension and mood.

There is another aspect, another pervasive force in this film that is not exactly hidden, but is not there for the observing. It is a feature of this film that we must look for if we are to find it.

We get our first glimpse of it in the opening scenes. The film begins, as we have seen, with a girl, Natalie, running through the snow to her death. When that scene fades, we are in daylight and the camera focuses on a herd of sheep. We next see a smaller group of coyotes moving in on the sheep and we watch the sheep eyeing the coyotes warily. We easily sense their danger. A loud shot rings out and one of the coyotes is thrown dead to the ground. The shooter, we see, is Cory Lambert. He will continue in that role throughout the film, the defender of the innocent, the weak, or as he puts it at one point, it is his mission to hunt predators. When his daughter’s body was found, the cause of death could not be deter- mined because coyotes had eaten too much of her body. He says he has been hunting them since then.

These two opening scenes, the victim running, the predators moving in on innocent sheep, plants an image in our mind of predator and prey that will be reinforced steadily as we move deeper into the film. We will see and hear of many instances of predator and prey, but as it applies to human predators and prey we see a common denominator. The predation around which the film revolves is sexual predation.

We learn fairly early that Natalie was raped before she ran into the woods. In fact, suspicion quickly turns towards her mysterious boyfriend. We hear it in the dialogue as Martin is first being questioned about his daughter’s death, as Jane asks why he didn’t know about her boyfriend. He angrily admits that he trust- ed her and that was his mistake. The boyfriend is the suspect in part because we have learned that she was raped. Later, his body is found naked in the snow.

When Cory finally speaks openly about his daughter’s death, the story has a similar ring to it.

“I was working as an outfitter out of Pinedale. There was a big snow, and I found myself with a night off, so I grabbed a motel room and told my wife to come up. Just her. You get precious little romance with two kids and a job that keeps you in the mountains half the year. Emily was sixteen. Casey was five. You could trust her. She was a good girl. We lived out on the res not far from her parents. Should’ve made’em stay with Wilma’s folks. I guess word got out that we were out of town and some school friends came over. Then more came over. Then some people came that weren’t her friends. Get together turned into quite a party, and then, I don’t know. A lot I don’t want to know. It was Natalie that called us the next day. Told us Emily was missing. They were best friends, so Natalie was worried. She had a right to be. You try to be so careful, try to plan for everything. Emily was such a good girl, we just let our guard down. You’ll have kids some day, and let me tell you, Jane: you can’t blink. For eighteen years. Not once … .”

The presumption is that predators got to her, sexual predators. But there is another warning there as well. “You get precious little romance with two kids and a job that keeps you in the mountains half the year.” It was sex that distracted Cory and Wilma from keeping watch over their daughter. Martin trusted his daughter with a strange man and his words echo in our minds, “I chose to trust her. I chose wrong.” “Emily was such a good girl, we just let our guard down.”

Hidden in these words is a warning to parents. It is a warning about sexual predators; but it is goes beyond that. Cory’s daughter would be alive if he and his wife hadn’t wanted to be alone to make love. It is a warning about sexuality, about the desires that lead us down the wrong path.

As psychoanalysts, we know that there are times when we must look beyond what we see and hear, to listen for what we don’t hear, for an absence. If we look closely, we can see an absence in this film. It is the absence of love, affection, intimacy and sexuality. Martin and his wife are never seen together. Wilma’s parents, Emily’s grandparents, are never in the same scene. Cory and Wilma show some concern about each other—“be careful’s” are exchanged—but they cannot show true affection and certainly cannot show any romantic or sexual attraction after the harm it has done their daughter. There is some platonic friendship that develops between the male characters, Cory and Ben, the tribal policeman, and the FBI agent, Jane. But it is never allowed to develop into anything more than some paternalistic caring.

Romance, sexuality, is never shown in a positive way, with one telling exception described in italics below.

Ben and the tribal police, along with Jane, go to the oil rig where Natalie’s boyfriend, Matt, had worked with the security detail before he was found dead. We see Cory doing his tracking looking down on them from the woods. Jane and the tribal police encounter the group of security guards for the oil rig who had worked with Matt, and as they are walking together, there is a sudden exchange of words and pointing of guns between the police and the security guards. Amidst this tension, they go to Matt’s trailer that we are told he shared with the leader of the security and a man named Pete who is supposed to be inside the trailer. Jane goes up to the trailer door and knocks on it, calling out to Pete.

As she is knocking, we see inside the trailer. A young man is shaving. At first we think it is Pete, hearing the knocking from within, but when he goes to the door and opens it, we see that it is nighttime and instead of Jane we see a young woman, Natalie, smiling at him. He is young, broad shouldered, handsome. We realize, we are in the midst of a flashback and that the man answering the door is not Pete, but Matt, Natalie’s boyfriend, wearing only a towel.

Matt: Can I help you?

Natalie: Yeah, I’m looking for my knight in shining armor. I believe this is his trailer. Matt: I’m a little short on armor at the moment.

Natalie: I don’t mind.

Matt: You don’t mind. Do you have any idea how good it is to see you. Like any idea, man oh man! How’d you get here? I didn’t hear your carriage pull up.

Natalie: Yes, well … My carriage wanted to catch the eight o’clock show in Lander, so she dropped me off at the turn-out.

Matt: You walked in the snow? Superwoman. She leans into him.

Natalie: I think you’re worth it.

He smiles. He kisses her, pulls her inside and slams the door closed. We next see them lying in bed together, covered to their shoulders with the sheets, clearly having just made love.1

They are relaxed and talking about places he’s been, places to go.

She says, “How about New York?”

“You’d hate it. You’d hate New York. I spent a whole month there.”

“OK, how about Chicago?”

“Same as New York, only colder, more crime, that sort of thing.”

He kisses her.
“All right, how about Los Angeles?” she asks. “Listen to me, you never ever say that word

on me again.”
“It’s warm there.”
“I’d rather be in Iraq. Iraq’s warm. … I’ll tell

you what. I got one. I was a … I remember I was stationed at this place called Point Lague about an hour north of LA. It was Christmas and what the Navy does for Christmas is little skits … and all that stuff. I got in my truck and I high-tailed out of there and ended up in this little mountain town called Ojai. I get there, it’s like fruit farms, vineyards, mountains around protecting the town, and the people there are like small town and they say hello, and they all got this looks in their eyes like they ran into some sort of secret, like they got it all figured it out. And there’s this mission, this Spanish mission right there in the middle of town. They’re having Christmas mass, celebrating Christmas in seventy degree weather. I just went picking an orange off a tree sat down on a bench and listed to their choir sing. I don’t know, it was the best Christmas I ever had.”

“I wanna live there.”
“OK. Let’s live in Ojai.”
He kisses her again.

This little fragment of a scene that takes place after sex carries a sense of innocence and simple pleasure, of love and caring that we do not see anywhere else in the film. It is significant for its tone, so different from what comes before and after. The scene is interrupted as Pete and the other men from the security detail come barging into the trailer. Pete leads the way and sees Natalie hurrying to shut the sliding door to the “bedroom,” parts of her body exposed. Pete, who is clearly drunk, pulls back the door and begins to enter their space, yelling playfully, “What are you doing in there?” Matt tries to get one of the other men to get Pete away from them, but they don’t and he persists.

It leads to a fight in which they all knock Matt to the ground. In the scuffle, Natalie suffers a blow to the head and falls onto the bed. Lying there, she awakens to the sensation of Pete raping her. As the scene becomes chaotic, she gets away, going to the door while the men subdue Matt, knocking him unconscious. Natalie looks back and then, wrapping her coat around her, she heads out the door in her bare feet for her fatal walk in the snow.

With that, we return to the “present.” Jane is knocking on the door. Ben gets a call from Cory who is looking down on the scene but has seen something in the tracks. Ben turns and yells out, “Jane, get away from that door” just before she is blown away from the door by a shot fired from within. Everyone begins shooting. At the end of it, Jane is lying in the snow wounded but alive, everyone else, including Ben, are dead except for Pete, who runs up into the mountains having been fired on from Cory and Cory, who will track Pete in order to mete out justice.

The contrast between the scenes, one of gentle lovemaking and the other of brutal violence, is stark. The contrast between the loving couple in bed and the rape that follows is also stark.

In fact, it is that brief scene of two happy lovers that helps define what is absent from this film. Natalie and Matt are the only happy, loving couple in Wind River. Their brief inter- action is the only loving, tender interaction between man and woman in the film. For it, she is raped and they are murdered.

Virtually all the violence in the film is set off by sexual desire! It is not thanatos, but eros that leads to all the death and mayhem. There is one important exception to this as well, the film’s final violence in which Cory Lambert metes out justice. He finds Pete, who had run from the shootout, knocks him out, ties him up and takes him to a remote mountain. There he gets him to confess to his crime of passion, that “I raped her,” and helped beat her boyfriend to death. Then he sends Pete running into the snow until he drops and dies, as Natalie did, from breathing in the frozen air. This killing is not perpetrated as an act of sexual aggression. It is punishment for sexual aggression.

Before Pete makes his full confession, he confesses to the state of mind that led to the rape and murder.

“You know what it’s like? Stuck out in this frozen hell, nothing to do? No nothing. No women, no fun? Just fucking … snow and silence.”

This last murder, of Pete, is felt by us as justice, but it also is consonant with the film’s hidden morality. Pete is not simply guilty of the actual crime; he is also guilty of harboring the intense sexual passions that led to the crime.

The hidden force in Wind River is the force of a fierce and violent condemnation and prohibition of sexuality. If this film were a patient in analysis, we would say that its oppressive mood comes from a powerfully sadistic con- science that warns us danger comes from our sexual desires. The film prohibits those desires, gives us a dire warning about them. This is the hidden fantasy, the hidden prohibition—curse if you will—that can help bring us, the viewers, to a state of sorrowful hopeless- ness, mitigated somewhat by the righteous vengeance that Cory takes upon Pete. Cory is able to reassure Natalie’s father, Martin, that this justice was served. Nevertheless, I found myself leaving the theater with a heavy heart.


1.In a script of the film I found on line, the scene at this point actually showed a very tender love-making betwee

n them. It was obviously changed at some point to the post love-making scene that we see on the screen. If it had been left, it would have been the only positive depiction of sex in the film.

Originally published in the PANY Bulletin, Fall, 2017, 55:3.


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