Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Movies In History: Wind River

I often dread watching modern movies set in Wyoming (I tend to give the older ones a pass) as they get things so wrong.  And, of course, as a local, let alone being a native at that, I no doubt look at anything set in Wyoming with a highly critical eye.
And that would be all the more the case here as, while I rarely mention it here, the Reservation is one of the places where I'm licensed to practice law.  I've accordingly spent a fair amount of time on the Reservation, although not in the Reservation's back country.

So, when a movie is set there, I"m prepared, I'm afraid, to eye it pretty closely.  And that means I'm sort of set up to dislike it.
That didn't happen here at all.
Indeed, not only do I like the movie, but I'm amazed by how much about the state and the Reservation they got right.  This is, indeed, a really rare film about modern Wyoming as it is mostly correct in all sorts of details.


Okay, to just summarize the film a tad, this movie is a murder mystery.  It starts off when Animal Damage Control agent Cory Lambert is called to the Reservation to track mountain lions that have killed a steer belonging to his (ex) father in law, who is an Indian living on the Reservation.  In tracking the cats, he finds the body of an Indian girl he knows is the high country. The Tribal Police respond and a female FBI agent responds.  The development of the plot and the clash of cultures, a three way clash, ensues.

There's a lot that could go wrong with a plot like this from a local's prospective.  Most of those things didn't go wrong on the other hand, but actually went quite right.

From the prospective of our reviews, we tend to look at the history of a thing, the culture of the setting and material details.  We know that this is a contemporary movie, not a historical drama, but we're taking the same approach here and this film does really well.

Let's start with the "history" of the story, if you will.

 Former Army stable, now BIA structure, on Ft. Washakie.

Crime, particularly crime associated with alcohol and drugs, is a huge problem on the Reservation, as Reservation authorities themselves will freely admit.  In fact, the Wind River Reservation is "dry" in that alcohol sales are banned on the Reservation, an act that the Tribal Council took quite a few years ago   Drugs are also a big problem on the Reservation and just a few years ago a fairly large DCI bust occurred there.  And some big occasional acts of violence occur there as well.

The film mentions at one point how many Indian women simply go missing in the United States and that no statistics on this are kept.  I was unaware of that, but I am aware of one case here locally in which an Indian woman's body was found by a sheep rancher I knew and it took years, and a very interested coroner, to identify the poor woman's body. She'd been murdered and left out in the prairie.  So much of this feels very familiar.

One thing, and not a good thing, that feels very familiar in the film, which is associated with that, is the haphazard fashion in which so many young people in this state are left to live their lives.  There's a comment early on about the appropriateness of an 18 year old girl being left to her own devices, but that's not so much an Indian thing here as it is a cultural thing.  That too sounds all too familiar.

 Former Army structure on Ft. Washakie, now used by the BIA.

The regional occupations, which might surprise some people, are spot on. There are Animal Damage Control agents in the state.  Not many, but a few, as well as county trappers.  To see one made the main protagonist and indeed the hero of the film is refreshing.  The Reservation really does have a Tribal Police force (it has for over a century).  I don't know how thickly staffed it is right now, and during the Obama Administration the Reservation was flooded with Federal police that were sent on some sort of anti terror funding effort, meaning that it was heavily policed for awhile.  But the normal state of affairs puts the entire Reservation, which is indeed as big as Rhode Island, in the hands of just a few policemen.  Again, I don't know how many, but I think a good example of what they face is provided by an advertisement I saw years ago for the Reservation game warden. There was only one (and there might still be only one) and the advertisement provided that the applicant had "to be able to ride into remote areas on horseback and bring out a a suspect alone".

Think about that.  2,000,000 acres to patrol, and you have to be able to do it. . . .alone.
That scene in the film in which the FBI agent asks if they should wait for backup and the Tribal Police chief responds "This isn’t the land of backup, Jane. This is the land of 'you’re on your own'." is spot on.

As an aside, I once stopped in the Haines General Store in Fort Washakie and saw that the truck of the Tribal Game warden, a single cab Dodge, was in the parking lot.  A Ruger Mini 30 was prominently mounted to the dash.  Not exactly the AR of current police fame, but I bet that guy, self equipped, knew how to use it.

In terms of the physical portrayal of the region they also did a very good job.  I know that much of the high country scenes were filmed in Idaho, and I've never been in the high country of the Reservation, but there is high country on it and I'll give it a pass.  The scenes of towns and dwellings, including a certain horrifying trailer, look pretty familiar.  The unusual habitation pattern of the Reservation, as opposed to the rest of Wyoming, in which there are a lot of dwellings here and there, is correctly portrayed.   I had to debate in my mind if a scene showing Fort Washakie was shot there or not (I'm sure it wasn't) but the fact that I had to ponder that about a place I've been to many times says something. The prairie scenes are correct.  And there is oil and gas development on the Reservation.  There's one short shot of Lander which is actually of Lander.

Old elevator in Lander.  You can see this in the film, from a much different direction.

The cultural portrayal is also very good.  

The Wind River Reservation is the home to two Indian Tribes, the Shoshone and the Arapaho.  That doesn't directly come up in the film but it's hinted at by those who know what to look for.  For those familiar with the Tribes, European names are more common in one than the other, with Anglicized Indian names being more common in that other.  Both show up in the film.

The tension between the Indians and the non Indians is subtle in the film, and its subtle in reality as well.  Likewise the strong identification of a resident non Indian with Indians is something that occurs in reality as well.  The highly rural and blue collar nature of nearly all the work depicted is also spot on for the state.  The possible relocation of Lambert's ex wife to Jackson for a "better" job, working in hotels in Jackson, is the sort of thing that would really be regarded as a better economic move for many in the state.

The survival of the endangered Indian languages, not in daily primary use but still hanging on, is depicted in one scene and likely to the surprise of most people who live elsewhere.  Indeed, the context in which it is shown, to deliver an insult to an outsider, is something I'm actually aware of occurring in a slightly different fashion.  Likewise, the survival of some distinct Indian cultural practices is correctly portrayed.

Very unusually, the regional accent is correctly delivered, which it almost never is.

The main protagonist speaks with the correct Rocky Mountain region accent, the first time I've ever seen this portrayed in film.  A subtle accent which is somewhat like the flat Midwestern accent, it is different and tends to have a muttering quality to it.  For some really odd reason, most films set in modern Wyoming tend to use a weird exaggerated drawling accident that doesn't exist here at all, and which sound amazingly bizarre to our local ears.  Speech as portrayed in accent form by something like The Laramie Project just don't occur here at all, but the speech delivered by Corey Lambert in the film is spot on.  Even some of the phrases that show up in the film, such as a dissing of Jackson, are actually used here.


In terms of material details, the film is also amazingly accurate.  The vehicles, a minor detail I suppose but an important one none the less, are correct for the region and the conditions. . . pickup trucks and snowmobiles.  Clothing details are correct, including headgear for the region and outdoor clothing.

Firearms, which figure prominently in this film, are also correct for what we'd expect to find.  The law enforcement officers in the film are all equipped with the current 9mms popular with law enforcement officers with one exception, that being the Tribal Police chief who is equipped with a M1911, something we'd find to be appropriate for that character.  The Federal hunter was surprisingly accurately equipped.  In the beginning of the film he's shown using a bolt action rifle which is somebody in that role in this region would be equipped with.  Something that appeared in the trailers which I was prepared to criticize was that the same character was shown using a Marlin Model 1895, but in the film its revealed that this is a scabbard rifle for carrying on a snowmobile, in which case it does in fact make sense.  A surprising moment for me was when he was shown to carry a large caliber revolver in a holster slipped on to a broad leather belt, as the evening I saw it I was just back from antelope hunting and I myself carry a large caliber revolver in a holster slipped on to a broad leather belt.  I'm surprised by them getting a regional detail like that right.  About the only firearms item I'd criticize is the appearance of a selective fire M4 in one scene but the use of M4 type carbines in the role that they're shown in would be correct.

So the film is perfect, correct?

No, I'm not saying that. But I am saying that they got most things right.

So what did they get wrong?

Well one thing is that drilling rigs operate year around in this region and do not shut down for the winter.  That just doesn't happen.  I understand why that was portrayed that way in this film, but that doesn't occur.  And drilling rigs don't have security either, which is in part because they wouldn't need it as they don't shut down.

The sense of distance is off in the film as well.  What are portrayed as long distances for the film would be short ones here.  And one geographic feature that's shown to be reached inside of a day just simply could not be, although again I understand why that was incorporated into the film.  Somewhere in the film there's a joke about going 50 miles to travel 5, which is true enough, but in reality its more like 150 miles to travel 15.

A  minor matter is that a scene of what is supposed to bet he courthouse in Lander is most definitely not of the courthouse in lander. But that's not really so much of a complaint here, as simply something I'm noting.  I know why they chose the building they did, perhaps.  In movies they like their courthouses to look like courthouses, and the one in Lander really doesn't that much.  But that, as noted, is not a big deal.

The actual Fremont County Courthouse.

Another minor matter is that the name "Washakie" is mispronounced in the film and by an actual Indian actor, Graham Greene.  In his defense, he's neither Arapaho or Shoshone but Oneida from Canada.  And I sort of wonder if the pronunciation that's common here might actually be in error and I just don't know it (we use a lot of distinct pronunciations for things and people here that aren't pronounced the same way in their original languages).  Still, it was surprising and somebody should have caught that.

A somewhat larger deal is that, as seems so typical, very view of t he Indian characters in the film are portrayed by Indians.  That grates on the nerves of Indians and I can see why. There are Indian actors around, plenty of them, but its rare for all the Indian parts in a film to be portrayed by Indians.  Whether or not its politically correct to say so, Indians do not look like people of European decent and simply assigning Indian roles and perhaps applying some makeup, no matter how effectively, to European American actors doesn't really change that.

And finally, people familiar with police procedures and regulation will have to note that there's at least a couple of instances in the story of this investigation in which its likely that special affairs would have had to be called in.

None the less, it's well worth seeing.

On a note, for those who may be inclined to see it, this film is violent.  Very violent.  Some scenes approach a Sam Peckinpah level of violence.  There's a place for violence in a film, and then there's films that are simply violent. This film is sort of both.  Potential viewers should be aware of that.


McGehee said...

Not having had much occasion to hear Chief Washakie's name pronounced the way it is on the reservation, I'm curious if it differs significantly from the pronunciations I've found online -- essentially, "WASH-a-kie."

Also, my recollection from watching Wind River is that Greene pronounced it "Wakashie." Maybe I need to rent it again.

Pat, Marcus & Alexis said...

I've only heard it pronounced in real life the way that you noted it. I don't know if that's the correct pronunciation in the original language, but that's the only way I've heard it pronounced.

FWIW, there are living members of the Washakie family today and they use that name as a last name. I've never heard it pronounced differently in regards to them.