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There’s no questioning the profound personal investment and deep connection to the wide-open spaces of Montana that grace Alex & Andrew Smith’s Winter in the Blood, the twin brothers’ first feature since their brooding 2002 coming-of-age drama The Slaughter Rule. But in remaining true to the spirit of Native American writer James Welch’s landmark 1974 novel, they have not succeeded in solving the central problem of how to render in emotionally involving narrative terms a fundamentally page-bound, internalized story.
An obvious labor of love, this hand-crafted film is beautifully made – photographed, scored and edited with a grubby lyricism that makes its shortage of plot momentum all the more frustrating. However, admirers of Welch’s books about Native American life, exploring the struggle to maintain cultural, ancestral and physical ties to the past while navigating a way forward, will find rewards in the drama’s cumulatively affecting final stretch.
The central figure is Virgil First Raise (Chaske Spencer), a Blackfoot Indian who lives on an isolated reservation ranch with his grandmother (Cynthia Kipp), his widowed mother (Casey Camp-Horinek) and her oafish partner, the aptly named Lame Bull (Gary Farmer). First seen waking up in a ditch, Virgil reaches instinctively for his whiskey flask, conveying that oblivion is his default setting. We learn that his beautiful wife Agnes (Julia Jones) has left him, taking his rifle and his electric razor, probably planning to sell them to buy booze.
Shuffled into non-linear poetic fragments in which hangover and bender become indistinguishable, the film wanders among Virgil’s thoughts in the present, his dreams and imagination, memories of childhood both painful and tender, and flashes of recent experience that surface through the numbing fog of inebriation.
However, the Brothers Smith and co-screenwriter Ken White have a tendency to over-explain Virgil’s confused state in pedestrian voiceovers. “Sometimes the memory’s more real than the experience,” he says in one of many interchangeable ruminations that spell out aspects already implicit in Michael Hofacre’s edit.
Haunted by the tragedies of his father (Richard Ray Whitman), a drinker found buried years earlier in a frozen ditch, and his beloved brother Mose (Yancy Hawly), Virgil flails about yearning for escape, or at least a better understanding of himself and his place in the world. But despite the quiet intensity of Spencer’s performance, as a central figure Virgil remains as remote as the austere Montana Hi-Line locations.
A surreal, possibly hallucinated interlude during his odyssey in search of answers connects him with a cryptic figure known only as Airplane Man (David Morse). This voluble stranger attempts to involve him in a half-baked smuggling expedition to Canada while evading pursuit by two sinister men in suits (David Cale and co-screenwriter White). Also surfacing in the space between reality and the dark recesses of Virgil’s mind are Agnes, her thuggish new lover (Michael Spears), a female bartender (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) and a kind young woman (Lily Gladstone) who offers him comfort.
While all of these peripheral characters suggest colorful prose creations, they fail to acquire vivid dimensions onscreen. Much of the film’s meandering midsection appears merely to be marking time before Virgil’s return to the ranch, when his bruising experience, as well as a loss in the family, triggers illumination. In the concluding section, he finds peace by learning to live among the ghosts of the past.
Welch was a family friend of the Smiths growing up, and like the protagonist of his novel, the filmmakers lived in relative isolation in Montana and lost their father at a young age. Their sibling bond also informs the lovely memory scenes of the young Virgil (Alex Escarcega) and Mose driving cattle under big skies on vast prairies. That shared history heightens the intimacy and integrity of the story, even if it never fully escapes its literary origins.
But there are compensations in cinematographer Paula Huidobro’s somber images of arresting landscapes, lonely stretches of highway and dusty towns. Likewise in the natural performances of the Native American actors. Music by Austin-based garage band Heartless Bastards enhances the melancholy mood.
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival (Narrative Competition)
Cast: Chaske Spencer, David Morse, Julia Jones, Gary Farmer, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Lily Gladstone, Casey Camp-Horinek, Richard Ray Whitman, Saginaw Grant, David Cale, Ken White, Michael Spears, Alex Escarcega, Yancy Hawley, Cynthia Kipp
Production companies: Ranchwater Films, in association with Kiteflier Studios
Directors: Alex Smith, Andrew Smith
Screenwriters: Alex Smith, Andrew Smith, Ken White, based on the novel by James Welch
Producers: Susan Kirr, Andrew Smith, Alex Smith
Executive producers: Carl Hampe, Heather Rae, Jason C. Miller, Peter Wiley
Director of photography: Paula Huidobro
Production designer: David Storm
Music: Heartless Bastards
Editor: Michael Hofacre
Costume designer: Kristin Burke
No rating, 98 minutes
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