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Film Review: The Only Good Indian

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
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PARK CITY -- Filmmaker Kevin Willmott, a Kansas film professor, gives us a history lesson here. A fictional distillation of the U.S. government's attempt to assimilate American Indians into white culture, "The Only Good Indian" is well-suited for cultural anthropology classes, university video series and festival settings.

Unfortunately, its wobbly and preachy dramatic narrative diminishes its power. We're getting a lecture here in skimpy dramatic clothing. The most powerful social statements in dramatic film, of course, are those that seek to entertain first without showing their editorial seams; "In the Heat of the Night," is a glowing example.

This well-meaning and intelligent Sundance entrant lacks the storytelling finesse to do this woeful historical injustice the wider appeal it deserves. In screenwriter Thomas L. Carmody's blunt scenario, we witness a young Nachwihiata boy kidnapped from his agrarian home and delivered by white brutes to a Christian boarding school that most resembles a reform school, and we sympathize with the boy's plights. Book-learning and Methodism are hammered into him by the stern, forbidding Christian tyrants.

Mindful of its schoolmarmishness, "The Only Good Indian" leaps onto the story trail as a chase movie: The young boy (Winter Fox Frank) is quickly captured by a bounty hunter who goes by the professional name of Sam Franklin (Wes Studi). Sam's a Cherokee with visions of joining the Pinkerton Detective Agency. In this yarn, he's a representational character of an American Indian trying to assimilate.

To the film's credit, the trans-prairie trek has some comic moments, particularly Sam's motorcycle contraption, which is as much of a mechanical oddity in the early 20th century as Sam himself is as a ethnographic wonder. There's also a grizzled lawman on their trail (J. Kenneth Campbell), who is woven into the story as a representational character serving its revisionist de-mythologizing of the American West.

There are patches where the storytelling is actually entertaining thanks largely to the talents of the cast members. Studi's subtle and conflicted performance is the film's highlight, ably amplified by Frank's appealing turn as the young boy stricken by a chauvinistic Christian culture.

Director Willmott deserves commendation for assembling such a wide-span story on an obviously limited budget; however, the monotony of his shot compositions, stiff cadence and tedious pacing detract from the film's message. Occasionally, there are John Ford homages with skyscapes and silhouettes, but ultimately this one is just too much by-the-book, aesthetically and thematically. A strong negative distraction is the grueling, assonant score, which mires the story further. The severe strings and sounds are occasionally enlivened by some indigenous musical garnishments.

Production company: TLC
Cast: Wes Studi, J. Kenneth Campbell, Winter Fox Frank, Paul Butler, Thirza Defoe, Christopher Wheatley, Laura Kirk, Delanna Studi, Blake Robbins, Kevin Geer
Director: Kevin Willmott
Screenwriter: Thomas L.Carmody
Producers: Thomas Carmody, Rick Cowan, Matt Cullen, Greg Hurd, Scott Richardson, Kevin Willmott
Executive producers: Hanay Geiogamah, J.T. O'Neal, Dan Wildcat
Directors of photography: Matt Jacobson, Jeremy Osbern
Production designer: Scott Murray
Editor: Sean Blake

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

No rating, 113 minutes