It’s been over a decade since twin brothers Alex and Andrew Smith’s film “The Slaughter Rule,” starring Ryan Gosling, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2002, and their follow up film, “Winter in the Blood” returns them to their home state of Montana, this time focusing on a young and troubled Blackfoot Indian, Virgil First Raise (Chaske Spencer). Things aren’t going so well for Virgil— he’s developed a hell of a drinking habit (he wakes up in a ditch) and his wife Agnes (Julia Jones) has left him and taken his rifle and electric razor (probably to pawn for a drink). He lives on a ranch with his mother and grandmother, but he’s wayward, aimless, motivated only by where he might find his next drink and how he might get his father’s rifle back.
“Winter in the Blood” aligns the audience heavily with Virgil’s troubled mind, combining the present day with flashes of memory and his own alcohol-induced collapse and confusion of time. One stylistic device used throughout the film are dissolves that show Virgil’s passage through time and space, unifying the present and the memory together in the frame. During his benders, quick flashes of imagery from the night before, as he wakes up in a state of undress and unsure of where he is, perfectly recreate that process of remembering what happened last night. The film seeks to visualize his internal thought processes, so you’re never quite sure what is real and what isn’t because Virgil isn’t so sure of that himself.
Virgil is soon thrown off his original goal of getting back his wife, who seems to exist only in memory or fantasy, when he encounters a wacky, wild white man, played by David Morse and going only by the nickname of Airplane Man. Virgil’s encounters with Airplane Man have a Coen Brothers meets David Lynch sensibility, mixing bizarre characters, humor and surreality. For a moment, you may even wonder if Airplane Man is a figment of Virgil’s imagination, because we’ve been so steeped in the purgatory of real life and memory/fantasy. And Virgil isn’t the most reliable of perspectives to hang on to. Airplane Man gets him involved in a border crossing drug smuggling (possibly?) scheme. They’re also being pursued by two menacing suited characters straight out of “Mulholland Drive.” But Virgil, though hapless and incompetent most of the time, manages to wriggle his way out of the situation and into the fist of his romantic rival. It’s clear he’s seeking, something, anything, but he just isn’t sure just what.
The film is artfully and skillfully made, with stunningly gorgeous cinematography of Montana’s High Line, and pitch perfect, highly detailed ’60s era production design. The score is beautiful, evocative and moody, and the performances (particularly by the Native American actors) feel authentic and lived in. Where the film suffers, though, is in its storytelling.
An adaptation of a novel by Native American Montana author James Welch, it seems that in translating such an internal story to the screen, they have simply tried to do too much. Because Virgil is hapless and wayward, so too is the story, meandering from scene to scene without much of a plot engine driving it forward. As we quickly and often flash back and forth from Virgil’s memories of childhood to his present day, the tonal shifts are often too much for the film to bear. The earnestness and innocence of his childhood memories contrasted with the recklessness and violence of his present day inhibit each other from truly reaching moments of greatness. We aren’t really allowed enough time in either period to develop a true connection to that story, so we end up not caring enough about either one. It’s not until the end when we discover what the memory is that has been tormenting him, and by that time, it’s a little too late to invest. Virgil, though we root for him because we essentially are him, is a difficult protagonist to get behind. He does a few extremely unlikable things and it’s hard to come back from that and want to see him succeed, especially so late in the game.
“Winter in the Blood” portrays a world that is too often overlooked, that of modern Native American life, and using the prose of James Welch, the film takes an unflinching and realistic look at some of the troubles that this community faces through the lens of this individual. It’s also a treat to see Native American actors, too often relegated to nameless parts in period dramas, portray such nuanced and complicated characters. While the story lags and suffers in its attempt to adapt such a complicated internal narrative and personal struggle, the Smith brothers have created a truly beautiful and unique film that deserves to be seen; a creative accomplishment not only of filmmaking but of capturing this world. [B]