“This isn’t the land of waiting for backup. This is the land of you’re on your own.”
Harsh as those words are, the reality they depict is even harsher. Wind River tells the gritty story of a murder case on an Indian Reservation where a young woman’s body is found in the snow by a U.S. Fish and Wildlife game hunter, Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner). Signs of rape and assault that are evident from the beginning are soon confirmed, and FBI Officer Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) and Lambert pair up to investigate.
The audience eventually learns that Lambert’s daughter also died in the cold a few years earlier. The undetermined, suspicious circumstances of her murder leave Lambert tormented and hungry to exact punishment. A few scenes in the film play out like near-fulfillments of revenge fantasies for Lambert, tantalizing him with the aroma of justice, offering a taste, then disappearing. Lambert pursues vengeance on behalf of the newly deceased young woman, Natalie, and her family, indulging the bloodlust that has been percolating beneath his calm exterior as he has mourned his own daughter. The retribution does not satisfy.When systems have failed and injustice abounds, will I turn away from those left in the wake of grief, unable to abide their pain if I cannot fix it, or will I offer them my presence, quiet and alongside?
Wind River is bleak, even gruesome at moments. The desolation that echoes throughout the snow-covered reservation and the agony of the characters’ stories resound loudly enough for Vox writer Alissa Wilkinson to suggest that the film “risks becoming a caricature of pain.” While I do not overtly disagree with Wilkinson’s critique (I certainly found a few scenes in the film to teeter on, if not fall over, the edge of gratuitous brutality), my overall impression of the film is, perhaps, rooted in different soil.
Over the course of the film, it is discovered that Natalie died after running six miles in the snow, barefoot, while attempting to escape her vicious attackers. Eventually, her body succumbed to the elements, and she collapsed. She died a horrific death, alone. This fact is one that jars even the most stoic of persons on the case with its stark reality. You can see it in their eyes—no one should die alone, but someone has.
Though many details of Lambert’s daughter’s death are unknown, one is clear—she too died horrifically, and alone. In what feels like a devastating ode to her fate, Lambert has shouldered the burden of his grief by himself. Lambert’s marriage has ended, his son is usually with his mother, and he spends his days silently hunting wildlife on the very reservation where his daughter breathed her last. In every corner of Lambert’s life for nearly the entire film, he finds aloneness.
Yet in the final scene of Wind River, the two mourning fathers are side by side. “I just want to sit here and miss her for a minute; will you sit with me?” the most recently bereaved father asks, Native American “death paint” adorning his face. Lambert sits with him as the film ends. It is not the moments of exacting vengeance that have brought him comfort, though he speaks of them with the hope that they will, but the silent presence of another person after his years of mourning in isolation.
As the men sit in silence at the film’s end, text appears on the screen. “While missing person statistics are compiled for every other demographic, none exist for Native American women.”
This horrible truth could compel nearly anyone to want to take justice into his own hands. In fact, my own solution-oriented spirit felt the urgency of the need for justice as those words appeared. I wanted to fight whatever power was responsible for this fact, to pound on doors until someone answered them. I still do, really, and I think that’s good. I don’t, however, think that should be my only response.
When systems have failed and injustice abounds, will I turn away from those left in the wake of grief, unable to abide their pain if I cannot fix it, or will I offer them my presence, quiet and alongside?
When good and worthy efforts at achieving justice fall short, am I more like Job’s friends as they sat silently with him in his grief, or when they started running their mouths, clamoring for a way to make sense of the world’s desperation but only stoking the searing fire of their friend’s agony all the more?
Like Lambert’s, and at times my own, misguided quests for justice, the Israelites in Jesus’ day also longed for the destruction of their oppressors. Desperate for vengeance against and power over their adversaries, they rejected Jesus when he did not offer them the immediate victory they sought. When hunger for the spilled blood of their enemies was left unsatisfied by the Man they had named their King, they cried out for his blood instead, murdering the very One who had put on flesh to dwell among them, to become acquainted with their sorrows, to bear their grief, to sit with them.
This was not, of course, the first time God’s people had clamored for a king to render them victors over their foes. And it isn’t the last time, either, at least not if my own desires for justice have anything to say about it. But the pursuit of justice and the cultivation of peace, traits set in the hearts of humanity by a just and peaceful God, know no fulfillment apart from him. In order to be justice-seekers and peacemakers in the true sense, we must recognize our role in the story God is telling, the one in which he sent his Son to put on flesh, to weep bitterly alongside the sisters of a deceased man whom he would soon raise back to life, to absorb the full weight of our bloodthirsty sinfulness in his death, to be resurrected as the true Conquering King.
And this story—the story of the God made man and bearing our sorrows—is the only story that makes sense of the emptiness of godless vengeance, for justice was never achievable by human means. It’s the only story that explains why we long for another person to sit next to us when our world is falling apart, because when the universe was shrieking beneath the pain of sin, Jesus drew near to us. And it’s the only story that gives us the true reason to be quiet in the face of another’s grief, sitting next to one another in silence as our bodies bear witness to the fact that we will one day behold the Son sitting at the right hand of the Father, reigning in perfect justice and peace.
This, of course, is the story Wind River could not fully tell. Yet even still, as waves of pain rage through the narrative, the undercurrent of grief longs for that better story—for justice that will truly satisfy, for a friend who will draw near. The questions that Wind River could not answer are being asked at every moment in this hurting world. May those of us who know the better story sit alongside the grieving as Jesus did, bearing witness both to their pain and to the hope of the day when that pain will be no more.