‘Wind River’ is a 2017 neo-Western murder mystery set amidst the stark landscapes of a Wyoming Native American Reservation. A dead body discovered by a tracker leads him and an FBI agent down a murky path, and the mystery ends up revealing more than just the crime. Masterfully nuanced, the film is a commentary on the lives of people that live in that particular, often overlooked, part of the country and is seeded with their experiences and darkest sorrows. Could you imagine a murder mystery in which the murderer is technically not human? The coroner certainly seems to think so, much to the frustration of the FBI agent. Let’s dive into the ending of ‘Wind River’ and peel back its layers. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Wind River Plot Synopsis
The film opens with Cory (Jeremy Renner), a local tracker who lives near Lander, Wyoming, who is called out to hunt a lion that’s killed local livestock in the nearby Wind River Reservation. He soon realizes that there is not one but 3 lions (a female and her 2 grown cubs) on the loose and sets off across the stark snowy landscape to find them. Instead, about 5 miles on, he discovers the body of a woman, injured and frozen to death, and recognizes it as the daughter of his friend Martin.
He summons the Tribal Police Chief, Ben, who also informs the FBI. Soon, Jane (Elizabeth Olsen), a young FBI agent, arrives at the scene, and it is clear from the start that she is out of her element. As the locals deal with her skeptically, she struggles to get accustomed to the local dynamics and even has to borrow warm clothes since she’s had to fly down from Las Vegas, where she’s positioned. We also learn that Cory’s own daughter Emily died many years ago under mysterious circumstances.
It is soon found that the victim, Natalie, was raped and ran for miles before finally collapsing in the snow. The coroner determines the cause of death as a pulmonary hemorrhage, caused by breathing in too much cold air whilst running in the stark winter night. Jane, who cannot ask for an FBI team unless the crime is a homicide (Natalie’s death is not ascertained as such), is forced to ask Cory for help and, along with Ben, heads to the nearest house to where the body was found, which happens to belong to young drug dealers. A brief shootout ensues at the house as the young criminals try to get away but are captured, with Natalie’s brother Chip being one of them. He is crushed when he finds out about the death of his sister and mentions her boyfriend, Matt, who lives near the drilling rigs where he works.
Wind River Ending: Is Jane Dead?
Jane and Ben, along with a few more members of the local force, head to the rigs, which are located on private property, while Cory heads to a nearby peak where he noticed sled tracks and is convinced that he will find clues there. Once at the oil rigs, Jane is told that Matt disappeared after arguing with his girlfriend. When she asks to see his trailer, the workers act suspiciously but agree to take them to it. En route, tensions erupt, and a brief standoff occurs between the workers and the law enforcement officials. Jane, however, is able to bring the situation under control, and they head to the trailer, where Matt’s roommate Pete is apparently sleeping.
Meanwhile, Cory stumbles upon the lair of the lioness and her cubs and notices human remains nearby. He contacts Ben by radio but is too late. Jane, Ben, and the officers are ambushed by the rig workers who gun down all of them. Cory then reaches the site and, in turn, shoots down the rig workers with his long-range rifle. One of them, Pete, who is also the one who shot Jane, attempts to get away and is captured by Cory and taken to the top of a nearby peak.
Once the tracker gets a confession from the man, he lets him go, albeit without gloves and boots. Soon enough, Pete’s limbs are frostbitten, and he collapses in the snow whilst attempting to run away, spitting out blood. The film then closes with Cory sitting with Martin and the two staring out into the distance at the stark landscape. Just before the film’s closing scene, we see Cory visit a visibly injured Jane in the hospital.
From her painful winces when she laughs, it seems like she has some heavily damaged ribs. Cory also mentions the bulletproof vest that saved her life. Therefore, despite getting shot with a shotgun at almost point-blank range, the FBI agent survives. She tells Cory that he is responsible for saving her life, but the latter reverts that Jane herself is strong and saved her own life.
The fates of the other law enforcement officials of the tribal police are left unknown, but one of them, who is shot repeatedly, is almost certainly dead. We see the chief, Ben, also slowly collapse, but there could be a chance he recovers from his wounds. However, considering how outnumbered the law enforcement officers were, and the number of bullets fired at them, their chances of survival look bleak.
Who Killed Natalie? Was it Her Boyfriend Matt?
In a flashback that occurs just as Jane is knocking on the door of Matt’s trailer, we see Natalie visit her boyfriend on the fateful night of her death. The two spend a romantic evening together but are interrupted by the other rig workers, who come back drunk. Matt’s roommate Pete repeatedly provokes the couple and makes lewd gestures at Natalie, even trying to pull the covers off her, until Matt loses control and strikes Pete.
A brawl ensues in which the group of men beat up Matt, and Pete subsequently rapes Natalie. Matt is able to then distract the men, allowing Natalie to escape. According to Cory, who finds her dead body, Natalie then runs 6 miles barefoot, in the biting winter night, before finally collapsing and dying from breathing in too much cold air too quickly, resulting in her lungs flooding with blood that subsequently crystallizes.
Matt, despite being an initial suspect, is eventually found to be a victim as well. He is beaten up by his rig colleagues, and Pete confesses to Cory at the end that they beat the man to death. Though not specifically detailed, it is implied that the bones that Cory sees outside the lioness’s cave belong to Matt. The men, after killing him, seemingly took his corpse on a sled (whose tracks Cory notices) and dumped his body somewhere on the nearby hill, where it was subsequently found and devoured by the lioness and her cubs. This is what Cory radios Ben to tell him, but it is too late as the rig workers choose that very same moment to attack the law enforcement team.
What Happens to Pete?
Pete, who is Matt’s roommate and essentially sparks the situation that then leads to the deaths of Matt, Natalie, the tribal police officials, and the rig workers, is eventually captured alive by Cory. The film gives out a subtle but powerful message when Jane, despite being an FBI agent, gives Cory her express permission to kill Pete instead of attempting to capture him alive. This also matches the wishes of Martin, Natalie’s father, who tells Cory to gun down the man responsible for his daughter’s death, and overall fits the character of Cory, who is a “hunter” and mentions the same multiple times.
Pete is also killed in an extremely fitting way. Cory takes him to the top of Gannett Peak, the highest mountain in Wyoming, and offers to give him a chance at survival if he confesses to his crimes. Once Pete confesses to raping Natalie and killing Matt, the tracker cuts the man’s binds and lets him go free. However, with no boots or gloves, Pete quickly gets frostbitten. Corey says that Natalie ran six miles in the cold and doesn’t expect Pete to get further than six hundred feet. Sure enough, after running a short distance, Pete collapses and begins to cough up blood, dying of pulmonary hemorrhage from breathing in cold air, just like Natalie.
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