The film opens on a note of dislocation. “Where are we going, daddy?” a young boy asks his father as they ride on horseback through the darkness. His father’s response: “Guess we’ll know when we’ve been there.” Even after Winter in the Blood is finished, you may not know quite where you’ve been. This film, adapted by Alex & Andrew Smith from the novel by American Indian author James Welch, is a disorienting – sometimes confusing – collision of past and present, dream and reality, personal narrative and cultural history, stark seriousness and oddball humor.
The film tells, in its fractured, evocative way, the story of Virgil First Raise as he leaves the reservation to search for his wife and the gun she has taken with her. This leads to hazy, possibly hallucinated, encounters with various white people. These scenes are frantic and a bit exhausting. Meanwhile, the film frequently interjects scenes from Virgil’s childhood, some of them haunting like the deaths of his father and brother, others peculiar like a young Virgil being forced to eat a soup made with the hawk he shot out of the sky. All the while, Virgil is looking for answers to his identity while struggling with his grief. He looks to alcohol, to sex, to dreams, and eventually to death. But what answers Virgil finds come principally from looking to the past, to the elder members of his community, his only link to the rich traditions of his tribe.
Throughout, the Smiths favor metaphor over narrative, and, for this reason, it can at times be difficult to find one’s bearings. The Smiths have loaded the film with dialogue and voice-over without always finding a way to translate those ideas into cinematic language. While there are some gorgeous shots of the vast emptiness of Montana – the home state of both Welch and the Smiths – the Smiths have mostly let the talking carry the thematic weight. The Smiths deserve credit for refusing to dumb down their source material. If Winter in the Blood at times feels directionless, that is because its protagonist is as well. While the film may not always be coherent, it is rarely boring and frequently surprising. As well, it is refreshing to see a film told entirely from the point of view of a Native American without feeling the need to filter his experiences through the lens of a white character. In fact, every scene in the film involving a white person is inherently untrustworthy, an absurd cabaret act, enticing and repulsive. (It is no surprise that Winter in the Blood was produced by Sherman Alexie, who previously wrote and produced Smoke Signals, generally considered the first film made by an entirely Native American cast and crew.)
Virgil is a complex character trapped within a complicated web of personal and cultural history. (In this way, it recalls Arnaud Desplechin’s recent Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian another flawed but fascinating treatment of Native American male identity.) Virgil is haunted by the loss of his father and brother. He feels disconnected from both his fellow Indians and the white people who exist for him in a “shadow world.” He believes himself to be a “halfbreed” Indian because his grandmother reputedly slept with a white man. As a child, he idolized the cowboys in film. Virgil, the film suggests, cannot be explained simply by reference to his personal tragedies, nor can he be explained solely by his culture. He is a product of both of these and much more, as all people are. It is that willingness to attempt to capture the nuances and contradictions of Virgil’s identity that make this film, despite its flaws, a worthwhile effort. As Virgil says in voiceover, “To be a human being is not easy. I guess to be an Indian is not easy.”
WINTER IN THE BLOOD will be released by Kino Lorber in Los Angeles on October 31st.