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Winter in the Blood

Based on the 1974 novel by James Welch, “Winter in the Blood” is a dreamy, often brutally dark film about an alcoholic on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana.  Chaske Spencer plays Virgil First Raise, who lives his life in an alternating state of drunken stupor and hung-over bleariness. There’s not much that you could call a plot here; First Raise wakes up in a ditch as the film opens, discovers his wife has left him, heading into town with his rifle and his electric razor, and he eventually decides he ought to go after her, at least to get the rifle back. But even this quest doesn’t feel at all urgent; he seems to not really care if he gets her or the rifle back, and he’s not in a hurry.

Instead, this is a very wandering, impressionistic film.  Directors Alex & Andrew Smith do a great job of capturing how, if you live in one place long enough, almost anything can trigger a flashback to a powerful, often painful memory.  We learn, as the film unfolds, that Virgil has lost both his father and his older brother is traumatic and scarring ways.  We also learn that he’s basically a good guy who takes care of his silent grandmother whom everyone else seems to have forgotten about.  He is drowning in the pain of his past, and drowns his pain in drink, and meaningless sexual encounters.

The darkness of “Winter in the Blood,” along with its plotlessness and general lack of shape, can make it a challenging film to enjoy.  We aren’t told much about Virgil, and we’re quickly given more reasons to dislike him than to like him, and this is not a hopeful story about transformation of character. You’ve pretty much got to stick with this character because you know someone like him; I think a lot of us know someone like him.

Chaske Spencer is excellent in the lead role; he’s an actor who can convey a ton of emotion in a single facial expression, a way of standing, of stumbling out of the house. I think Spencer might be the finest young Native actor currently working; Adam Beach is more famous, but doesn’t have the range and intensity of Spencer. It’s a shame most people know Spencer for playing the werewolf in the silly, stupid “Twilight” movies.  He’s a very talented actor who is always worth watching.  “Winter in the Blood” also features a fine supporting cast, including one of my favorite actors, Gary Farmer, the ever-present Saginaw Grant (even if you don’t know his name, you’ll recognize him when you see him) and the up-and-coming Michael Spears, who is just one good role away from real stardom.

Also David Morse, the only white man in the film, who plays a character who may or may not be real.  Dressed like he just walked off a dude ranch (complete with ridiculous mustache and ascot) and talks like he grew up in Twin Peaks.  He recruits Virgil to help him smuggle something or other across the Canadian border, but then abandons the plan when he finds out Virgil isn’t full-blood.  There are also to comical looking characters chasing him.  This part of the movie is surreal and funny and odd; it doesn’t really fit with anything else that’s going on.  It might all be a hallucination, but whatever it is, I don’t know what it’s doing in the film.

“Winter in the Blood” is a movie about memory, identity, and trauma; it’s also a movie about despair and addiction.  Like Virgil First Raise, it’s kind of a confused, hazy film with no clear direction or purpose.  Directors Alex and Andrew Smith are clearly more interested in capturing a mood, a state of being, than in telling a story, and while I haven’t read the novel the movie is based on, sometimes this film illustrated the difficulty of bringing a great book to the screen — things that happen effortlessly on the page are really difficult to bring to the screen.  There’s art, and even a kind of harsh beauty, in the attempts, but it doesn’t always work.  It’s often a visually beautiful film, capturing those Montana skies, and fields of grass and cattle in ways that reminded me of films like “Days of Heaven.”

All in all, this is a very uneven work, and it’s certainly not for everyone.  Even as I was watching this, I found myself thinking “I see enough despair, wasted lives, alcoholism, and dysfunctional relationships in my regular life.  Do I need to see it on the screen, too?”  If you feel that way, stay away from this one.  But if you watch most of the movies out there and think, “That’s just not the way it is where I live,” you might want to give this one a chance.


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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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