“They say good dope either makes you puke or makes you shit, so you just start cutting your dope with stuff that makes you puke or makes you shit,” Rob chuckles to himself, admiring the Pepto Bismol hue of the pink meth he’s hoping to sell. In many ways, Rob is typical of the Ojibwe men who live in the desolate purgatory of Pine Point, Minnesota. He’s 37 years old, but he’s spent at least 12 of them behind bars — he’s a key member of the gang that has taken root in the same area where he’s trying to raise his family.
Somewhere down the street, perhaps on the other side of the perpetually burning car in the center of town, 17-year-old Kevin tries to suss out the person he wants to become. He looks up to Rob, and awaits to inherit the same struggles that weigh upon his mentor. On the wall of his dungy teenage bedroom, a traditional dreamcatcher hangs next to a tacked up “Scarface” poster.
A more complete and compelling portrait of a place than it is of any of the individual people who live there, Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s “The Seventh Fire” offers a short, unfocused, but powerfully resonant impression of how America’s past is sacrificed at the altar of its future. Using Rob and Kevin as proxies for all of the country’s disregarded native people — as well as its economically disenfranchised citizens of any creed or color — Riccobonno’s doc offers scattered glimpses of a land depleted of the hope that’s always been used to define it.
Executive produced (and “presented”) by Terrence Malick, “The Seventh Fire” shares the famous auteur’s amorphous sense of time. Seemingly shot over a number of years, but anchored to the week-long furlough that Rob has in the outside world before he’s due to start his latest stint in jail, the film leans hard into that sense of limbo, less intent on carving a linear narrative than in illustrating how life in Pine Point is lived as a closed circuit.
The town is small — you can see the whole thing in a single overhead shot — but it looks like all of the streets loop back towards it, like no one bothered to pave a road that leads to the rest of the world because none of the locals were ever going to use it. Kevin has never left the state of Minnesota, and he aspires to be Rob; Rob aspires to be a writer, but most of his poetry is about life as he’s seen it from the confines of a tiny jail cell. Sometimes there’s snow on the ground, and sometimes there’s not.
Riccobonno, making his feature-length debut, tries not to get in the way and he resists pushing a clear set of conflicts onto subjects who are struggling to resist the inertia of their socioeconomic circumstances. These people have clearly invited him into their lives, and they often address the camera in order to sum things up in just a few words (“Let’s just put it this way: When it comes to Rob, there’s always a new low”), but the film never risks feeling the least bit staged.
We don’t spend much time with these characters, but they’re quick to bare their souls. Rob, Kevin and just about everyone else they know are hooked on the same meth they peddle, and addicts tend to make such unerringly genuine documentary subjects because any concerns about representation tend to pale against compulsions over finding that next fix. At one point, Rob snorts a few lines and calls his dad, sobbing into the phone with the drug-addled anguish of a man who doesn’t want to go back to the jail that forged him. He’s an engaging and terrifically empathetic guy (it helps that we’re privy to less of his crime than we are to his punishment), and it’s heartbreaking to watch him stew behind bars while his son is being born — and it’s heartbreaking to know where his son will grow up, and to think of the the choices that will be denied him because of that.
Kevin is every bit as candid as his mentor, but at the same time almost completely impenetrable. He doesn’t know who he is yet, and Riccobonno internalizes that problem. This is a film about locating Native American heritage in a dire modern context, but more often than not it tries to do so by omission. That’s a commentary in its own right, but if Kevin is wrestling with his roots, “The Seventh Fire” feels almost entirely severed from them.
The title refers to a prophetic time in Ojibwe myth when the youngest member of the tribe would be confronted with the opportunity to return his people to their ancestral traditions and lead the rebirth of their nation. Unfortunately, Kevin’s attempts to assume that role (or those moments in his life that we’re meant to construe as such) are never given the attention required to galvanize them into something real — there’s a great deal of poetry to the scene in which the kid gets a wolf tattoo that’s meant to signify his allegiance to both his tribe and his gang, but Riccobonno’s hazy approach is so averse to hard detail that even the most profound sticking points can get lost in the mix. It’s telling that Kevin eventually vanishes from the film, if also perhaps a little promising.
But “The Seventh Fire” is stirring for how it chips away at the relationship between hopelessness and helplessness. It looks to the most historically dignified of American peoples to find that who we are is sometimes inextricable from where we come from. As Rob puts it: “If I was going to go to prison for three years, I certainly wouldn’t spend my last week in Pine Point. But hey, it’s home to me.”
“The Seventh Fire” opens in theaters on Friday, July 22.