'Neither Wolf Nor Dog': Film Review
A writer learns life lessons from an elderly Native American in Steven Lewis Simpson's indie drama based on Kent Nerburn's 1994 semi-autobiographial novel.
Based on Kent Nerburn's acclaimed Native American-themed novel of the same name, Neither Wolf Nor Dog is the sort of self-distributed, regional cinema success story that rarely happens anymore. While this effort from filmmaker Steven Lewis Simpson (who serves as director, producer, cinematographer, editor and co-screenwriter) is somewhat lacking in technical polish, it boasts an undeniable emotional power and authenticity. Much of that stems from the casting of Dave Bald Eagle in the pivotal role of a Lakota elder.
The Native American actor, who was 95 years old when he made the film and whose real-life story is even more fascinating than that of the character he plays onscreen (more on that later), delivers an indelible performance that has been rendered all the more poignant by his having passed away not long after shooting was completed.
As the semi-autobiographical story begins, Nerburn (Christopher Sweeney), who has recently published an oral history of Native American folklore, receives a phone call from a young Native American woman (Roseanne Supernault). She explains that her elderly grandfather, Dan (Bald Eagle), wants to meet him and insists on doing so in person. Although Nerburn is initially resistant, he becomes intrigued enough to agree to make the lengthy road trip from Minnesota to meet with Dan at his home on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation (where much of the film was shot).
During their first meeting, the impish old man tells Nerburn that he's hardly the first white man to visit the reservation. "We get 'em all," Dan says with a gleam in his eye. "Social workers, missionary types and old hippies!" He says that he wants Nerburn to turn his notes, written on small pieces of paper and collected in a shoebox, into a book. Intrigued, Nerburn begins reading Dan's scrawled observations, which include "When white people won, it was a victory. When we won, it was a massacre."
Nerburn's initial attempt at transforming the scattershot notions into a narrative is met with derision by Dan's friend Grover (Richard Ray Whitman, terrific). So much so, in fact, that Nerburn decides to abandon the project and return home. But his vintage truck mysteriously breaks down, leading him to take a road trip with Dan and Grover so that they can introduce him to the realities of Native American life.
The screenplay, co-written by the filmmaker and the original author, doesn't fully succeed in translating the source material into narratively compelling cinema, with the episodic structure and sluggish pacing producing occasionally tedious results. A potentially powerful scene, in which the men encounter a drunken Native American who tries to sell them beads at a café, starts out strongly, providing a vivid illustration of the alcoholism that afflicts reservations. But the episode is allowed to go on so long, and so repetitively, that its impact is diluted, a problem that occurs frequently throughout the proceedings.
Nonetheless, the film provides deep insights into Native American history and culture, with the Nerburn character essentially serving as a stand-in for those viewers who themselves need some education about the subject. The messages are not always delivered in subtle fashion. "You have to listen before you can learn to see," Grover instructs Nerburn at one point, as if reciting a saying stitched on a pillow. But the characterizations and dialogue are infused with enough wisdom and humor to make the lessons go down easily.
Bald Eagle's presence benefits the film immeasurably. The elderly actor delivers a sly, witty performance that is all the more amusing for its understatement. He also rises to the dramatic occasion with a deeply moving, improvised monologue late in the film when Dan takes Nerburn to a cemetery dedicated to victims of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee.
(His real-life biography is also compelling. Bald Eagle fought at Anzio and at the D-Day invasion in Normandy during World War II. He later made his way to Hollywood, where he trained John Wayne and served as Errol Flynn's stunt double. And his grandfather was Chief White Bull, who fought Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Meanwhile, his co-star Whitman was a member of the American Indian Movement, the group that occupied Wounded Knee in 1973.)
Already an indie success story with its theatrical release in many Western and Midwestern states, Neither Wolf Nor Dog deserves greater exposure on big-city screens as well.
Production company: Roaring Fire Films
Distributor: InYo Entertainment Film Distribution
Cast: Dave Bald Eagle, Christopher Sweeney, Richard Ray Whitman, Roseanne Supernault, Tatanka Means, Zahn McClarnon, Harlan Standing Bear
Director-producer-cinematographer-editor: Steven Lewis Simpson
Screenwriters: Kent Nerburn, Steven Lewis Simpson
Executive producers: Marc Allen, Kathryn Young, Melissa Anderson, Karl Richard