With Reservation

Wild River, recently available on pay-per-view, centers around the gang rape-murder of a young Native American woman on a Wyoming reservation.

Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan, the film begins with one of those take-notice“Inspired by…” or “Based upon actual events” tags and closes with the chilling notice that no “missing person statistics… exist for Native American women.” Much of what is depicted is extraordinary: the wintery, desolate but beautiful rez; the striking presence of some of the supporting actors. But much is familiar: the damaged, loner male avenger (Jeremy Renner, more appealing than had been Benicia del Toro in Sheridan’s Sicario), and the in-over-her-depth female (Elizabeth Olson, less traumatized than had been Emily Blunt); and the climactic where-is-Sam-Peckinpah-when-you-need-him shoot-out. So I wondered how much exactly was “actual,” its authenticity deflecting what might otherwise seem cliche.

It turns out, as far as I can tell, nothing. At least none of the “events” in the film, as “events” are generally defined – “something that happens,” for example, or “the fundamental entity of observed physical reality represented by a point designated by three coordinates of place and one of time in the space-time continuum posited by the theory of relativity” – occurred. No person on this reservation or in Wyoming – or on this planet – seems to have said or done anything depicted in the film in the context or situation of the actors on the screen. Which, come to think of it, doesn’t make Wild River any more or less like most novels, films or creative works in their relationship to “inspiring” events, everything coming from inside someone’s head because of something outside it. It just isn’t “true.”

But there is one thing “actual” in the film’s 107 minutes: the absence of statistics about “missing” Native American women. And while this presents itself as shocking, especially to someone who has just viewed Wild River, it does not take a boxcar of cynicism to recognize that all this means is that the number of the disappeared would range between “hardly any” and “lots.” (Canada, which has between a quarter and a half the number of Native Americans as the United States, depending on how they are defined, estimates that, in the last 30 or 40 years, its missing Native American women number between one- and four-thousand, which is to say between 25 and 133 annually.)

What is more, this declaration has little to do with the movie, since the young woman at its center had not “disappeared.” She had not even been reported missing before her body was found.    And there are easily discoverable statistics with more relevance to the events of the film. For instance, in the United States, Native American women are raped at four times the national average. For instance, Native American woman are murdered at ten times the national average.

Why these relevant statistics were not screened, while a non-relevant non-statistic was seemed something to ponder. Was the number of rapes and murders of Native American women too disturbing to display? I didn’t think so, since the movie had already vividly depicted the rape  and had happily dramatized any number of killings. Was it then the inferred supposition – and accusation – that no one cares enough about the fate of Native American women to total their absences? Was that more damning that noting the actual numbers of the actual brutalities that occur?

I thought it might be. This void, this obliteration, this turning away from what this lack of counting represented was more condemnatory than the actual bodies bleeding on the frozen ground. That they were not worth a column in the ledger. That they merited no beads pushed across the abacus.

The more recognition does not occur, the less reason for correction. The fewer others for consciousness to ignore its obligation to do unto as it would have…

This is a truth with wider application, I believe.