DIRECTED BY: Alex Smith, Andrew J. Smith
FEATURING: Chaske Spenser, David Morse, Saginaw Grant, Gary Farmer, Casey Camp-Horinek, Julia Jones
PLOT: Virgil First Raise, an alcoholic half-breed Blackfoot, wakes up from a blackout and is told that his wife has left him, taking his rifle and electric razor with her and setting him off on a boozy, hallucinatory quest to recover the items.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A vision quest seems like the perfect plot structure for a weird movie, but although there is a lot to enjoy in this slightly surreal, unusual Indian-themed movie, it isn’t strange enough to overcome its narrative shortcomings.
COMMENTS: Waking up from a bender in a ditch, seeing visions of his dead father, Virgil First Raise complains he is “caught in an in-between place… vulnerable to the spirits.” Though not entirely successful as cinematic psychoanalysis, Winter in the Blood does capture Virgil’s physical and psychological tipsiness and vulnerability to the spirit world, which bleeds into reality. Flashbacks frequently interrupt the present-day action, often introduced in interesting ways; for example, Virgil fishes in a river and sees his childhood self and his (now absent) brother frolicking on the opposite bank. The movie also incorporates the rhythms of hard drinking; we see Virgil tippling in a bar, following up on a lead, and suddenly he wakes up in a strange bed, leaving us with a suspicion that crucial plot information may have been irretrievably lost to a blackout. That structure of memories and ellipses would be confusing enough for the average viewer, but then there are also entire subplots that are probably imagined, such as Virgil’s dalliance with a Canadian “airplane man” who is being tailed by mysterious men in suits and who wants to enlist the Indian in an obscure smuggling plot, the details of which keep shifting. The quirky and sinister airplane man scenes, particularly one where Virgil finds a fellow diner at a lunch counter inexplicably falls face-first into his soup, give the film an exciting Twin Peaks-on-the-reservation sensibility that it could have used more of.
Virgil suffers from a horde of demons—too many for a single movie—from alcoholism to survivor guilt to incompetent parents to the manhood ritual he never completed to fretting over the Caucasian impurities in his blood. His troubles materialize in an equally numerous series of symbols: the rifle, a mysterious blonde barmaid who sometimes has a tattoo and sometimes doesn’t, the airplane man, a stuffed teddy bear, a rabbit in a haystack. As a work of Native American cinema, a field that’s not overly crowded, Winter in the Blood ranks as a minor standout. The performances are mixed but generally good, the soundtrack is alt-melancholy, and the excellent widescreen cinematography captures the agrarian grandeur of Big Sky country. But all of the floating symbolism, subplots and narrative loose ends, together with the impressionistic style and some fumbling at the finale (the emotional climax feels misplaced, with Virgil’s despair unexpectedly peaking after the scene that should have brought him insight and redemption) result in a film that ends with an unfortunate lack of closure.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Real and surreal weave together, and an impeccably chosen soundtrack — by, among others, the Heartless Bastards and Robert Plant — reinforces a mood that veers from dreamy to violent with shocking suddenness.”–Jeanette Catsoulis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
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