“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.
“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]