“The Only Good Indian” begins as the most depressing and awful movie in the world. A Kickapoo boy (Winter Fox Frank) is ripped away from his screaming parents by bearded white men on horses and taken to a boarding school. The school is a hell on earth occupied by brown-skinned children. It is tended by sadistic white demons who spout platitudes while beating and raping the children they are supposedly “educating.”
This is a chapter in history that I think no one wants to see replayed, either in real life or on the screen. Not the Native families upon whom these crimes were perpetrated, and certainly not the white people who try so hard to forget or explain away the terrible things their ancestors did. Watching the first twenty minutes of this film, I braced myself for a “Hotel Rwanda” experience: you watch a movie once, accept what it has to say about the terrible things one human can do to another, then you put it away and never watch it again.
Thankfully, “The Only Good Indian” isn’t two hours about the horrors of Indian boarding schools. Frank escapes from the boarding school, and bounty hunter/private detective Wes Studi is sent to bring him in. Studi is an assimilated Indian, or at least that’s what he’d like to believe. He’s abandoned his Cherokee heritage and adopted the White Man’s ways; his name is Black Fox, but he calls himself Sam and rides a motorcycle. (Studi is an actor with great charisma, and he brings it all to bear in this part; the screen lights up the second he appears.) But something happens on the way back to the boarding school, and suddenly Studi and the boy are fugitives, pursued by a grizzled sheriff by the name of McCoy (J. Kenneth Campbell.)
This sets up the central thematic tension of “The Only Good Indian.” It’s really about these two men (Studi and Campbell) and the ways each must grapple with their past and try to find a place for themselves in the future. They have a shared past, having something to do with the Sand Creek massacre; we don’t learn the details, only that Studi was an Army scout and once saved Campbell’s life.
Studi must face the central dilemmas of assimilation. Namely, he has left behind a proud and beautiful culture for one he neither understands nor enjoys, and will never truly be a part of. As a “wild Indian,” the white men hate, distrust and seek to kill him; as an assimilated one, they still distrust him, and mostly see his attempts to be white as insolence and arrogance. It’s a lose-lose situation.
Campbell’s character represents a theme we’ve seen in Westerns over the last decade. Watching him in “The Only Good Indian,” I was reminded both of the titular character in “The Assassination of Jesse James” and Clint Eastwood’s character in “Unforgiven.” He’s a man who has become famous as a gunslinger and rough rider. Penny novels are written about him, and, in one scene, he watches an actor play him on a movie screen. But, of course, all the stories and movies are glamorized and sanitized. Campbell knows what really happened, and it haunts him in his dreams. He has killed many people, both threatening and innocent, and has slept with one eye open for the last thirty years. He hates the fame, he hates the lies, and he hates who he has become. Incidentally, he also hates the boarding schools. He’d rather fight and kill the Indians on the open prairie than see them locked up in dark rooms and robbed of all that makes them Indian.
When the film stays on these two characters and their love/hate relationship with each other, “The Only Good Indian” is riveting. Unfortunately, director Kevin Willmot doesn’t seem to realize this, and introduces far too many rabbit trails and distractions to his story. There’s awkward voiceover reading from “Dracula,” and a subplot in which Studi and the boy capture a notorious killer, turn her in and then change their minds and rescue her the next day. (And for some reason, the boy speaks like he learned English from watching “The Lone Ranger and Tonto;” his English isn’t broken so much as badly stylized; nobody speaks like this in real life.) And another incident with another bounty hunter/child stealer that goes badly. These all seem unnecessary. In the hands of an experienced director, “The Only Good Indian” would be lean and mean; Willmott doesn’t seem to trust his actors enough to let their characters be the story, which is a shame; both Studi and Campbell do great work here. “The Only Good Indian” feels like a compelling and unforgettable movie trapped in a much lesser, more cluttered one.