Home > Reviews > WIND RIVER – Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

WIND RIVER – Nick Cave and Warren Ellis

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Wind River is the directorial debut of screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, the writer of Sicario and Hell or High Water. It’s a murder-mystery set on an Indian Reservation in an isolated part of Wyoming, in which a young rookie FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) investigates the death of a young native American woman, found dead in a snowdrift, with the help of a local tracker working for the US Department of Fish & Wildlife (Jeremy Renner), and the chief of the Tribal Police (Graham Greene). However, as well as being an effective and unorthodox police procedural, the film also paints a searing portrait of the lives of those who live on Reservations – how the deprivation and isolation leads to crime, drug abuse, and even suicide, further compounding the endless indignities Native Americans have suffered for generations, ever since their tribal lands were invaded by white immigrants. The performances by native actors and actresses such as Greene, Gil Birmingham, Tantoo Cardinal, and Martin Sensmeier, are emotionally raw and politically charged.

The score for Wind River is by singer-songwriter and composer Nick Cave and his regular collaborator, multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis. Over the past decade or so Cave and Ellis have become the go-to musicians for unsentimental, dour depictions of the contemporary American west through scores like The Proposition, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Road, Lawless, and last year’s Hell or High Water; this music is an offshoot of Cave’s own darkly idiosyncratic examinations of the time and the place, the pinnacle of which was his 1996 solo concept album Murder Ballads, a tragi-comic homage to various morbid and blood-soaked cowboy legends. In the past, while I have appreciated their work, I have never really felt a strong emotional connection with their soundtrack music, but this has changed with Wind River, which I believe to be their strongest cinematic work to date.

The score is written for a fairly small ensemble, comprising solo violin, piano, synths, a small string section, and voices. It is generally low-key, but it creates a mesmerizing atmosphere of stark loneliness that gives the whole film an overarching sense of desperation that is quite palpable. The main theme, as introduced in the opening cue “Snow Wolf,” is built around an 8-note motif from Ellis’s violin; it has echoes of music from the Old West, maybe like an old folk song, but it is performed with an introversion that is both beautiful and depressing at the same time, much like the Wind River Reservation itself – a gorgeous panorama of majestic mountains and pine forests, but which is littered with run-down trailers and yards full of slowly rusting junk. Subsequent cues like “First Body,” “Hunter,” and “Shoot Out” reprise the theme to excellent effect.

One of the most interesting things in the score is the way Cave and Ellis use voices; cues like “Tell Me What That Is” and “Three Seasons in Wyoming” feature a mournful, wailing choral effect intended to sound like the howling wind that whips through the valleys and across the plains, driving the snow and chilling you to the bone. In the score’s publicity material, Cave says “the soundtrack was first and foremost the incessant wind or the grieving silence of the snow. Amid those elemental forces we made a kind of ghost score where voices whisper and choirs rise up and die away and electronics throb and pulse.” It’s a perfectly apt description.

Other cues, notably “First Journey,” “Second Journey,” and the aforementioned “Three Seasons in Wyoming,” feature the tired, disheveled, disembodied voice of Cave himself whispering lines of bleak, gloomy poetry over the music – “far from your loving eyes, all among the wind I run, I return to this place, and close my eyes again”. It’s an unusual, unique effect, but it ties in directly to a plot point regarding some original poetry written by the victim, and as such comes across as a sort of echo of the past, like her voice returning to narrate her own murder investigation. The fact that it’s a man’s voice, rather than a woman’s, is immaterial. The harshness of life here affects everyone equally, male and female, living and dead.

Pieces like “Breakdown,” “Corey’s Story,” “See You Tomorrow,” and the oddly cathartic “Memory Time” offer the briefest hints of warmth through the increased use of piano and more tonal string writing. These cues tend to underscore scenes where characters recall their own lost loved ones, or form new relationships with those who are newly bereaved themselves, and it allows a sense of welcome grief to come into the score. At the other end of the scale cues like “Meth House” and “Cabin” are harsh and brutal, more cacophonous collisions using the same instrumental ensemble, but with a more abrasive electronic core.

Unfortunately there is quite a bit of ambient droning too. Cues like “Zed,” “Never Gonna Be the Same,” “Third Journey,” and “Lecture” don’t really go anywhere or do much beyond presenting a few barren instrumental textures and plucked string rhythms, which results in a fair chunk of the score’s middle section becoming a little dull. It works in the film, but isn’t especially interesting to listen to.

However, for the most part, Wind River impresses, and as I said earlier I would be inclined to call it Cave and Ellis’s strongest cinematic work to date. The way they are able to depict through music the isolation, coldness, and bitterness of the film’s physical location, as well as the loneliness and deprivation suffered by the people who live there, is very impressive. The use of vocal and choral effects is creative and appropriate, as is the unique emotional expression of Cave’s poetry reading. All this, coupled by a mournfully attractive and appropriately depressing main theme, gives Wind River a sense of style that offers pertinent commentary on the film’s thought-provoking subject matter.

Buy the Wind River soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Snow Wolf (2:08)
  • Zed (2:01)
  • Tell Me What That Is (1:25)
  • First Journey (1:28)
  • First Body (2:35)
  • Second Journey (1:28)
  • Breakdown (2:01)
  • Never Gonna Be The Same (2:01)
  • Hunter (1:46)
  • Meth House (2:01)
  • Bad News (1:16)
  • Third Journey (1:05)
  • Second Body (1:00)
  • Lecture (2:04)
  • Corey’s Story (3:08)
  • See You Tomorrow (1:07)
  • Three Seasons in Wyoming (3:37)
  • Cabin (1:15)
  • Shoot Out (1:46)
  • Snow Flight (1:20)
  • Memory Time (2:07)
  • Survive or Surrender (2:05)
  • Wind River (3:49)

Running Time: 44 minutes 44 seconds

Lakeshore Records (2017)

Music composed by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Conducted by Ben Foster. Orchestrations by Ben Foster and Sam Thompson. Recorded and mixed by Jake Jackson. Album produced by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.

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