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. Their followup film “Winter in the Blood,” adapts a novel by Native American Montana author James Welch and is set in their home state of Montana, 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 with Virgil’s troubled state of mind, combining the present day with flashes of memory and his own alcohol-induced distortion of time. Throughout the film, dissolves that show Virgil’s passage through time and space, unifying his present and his memory together in the frame. During his benders, quick flashes of imagery from the night before, as he wakes up 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 himself.
Virgil is soon thrown off his original goal of getting his wife back, 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, one wonders if Airplane Man is a figment of Virgil’s imagination, the film is so steeped in the purgatory of real life and memory/fantasy. Airplane Man gets Virgil involved in a border crossing drug smuggling (possibly?) scheme. They’re also being pursued by two menacing 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, but he just isn’t sure just what.
The film is artful, with stunningly gorgeous cinematography of Montana’s High Line, and pitch perfect, highly detailed '60s era production design. The score is beautiful, and the performances (particularly by the Native American actors) feel authentic and lived in. Where the film suffers is in its storytelling.
In translating such an interior-driven story to the screen, the Smith brothers 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 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 one other from effectiveness. We aren’t 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 film's 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. Though we root for Virgil, he's occasionally a difficult protagonist to get behind, as he perpetrates a few extremely indefensible actions.
“Winter in the Blood” portrays an often overlooked modern Native American life, and via the prose of James Welch, the film takes an unflinching and realistic look at some of the troubles that this community faces through Virgil's experiences. 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 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]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 L.A. Film Festival.