As an actor I find it a difficult task for me to talk about another actor's work, and I don't presume for a minute to be good at it myself. But I am an American Indian, and I do know something about acting and film, having been a working actor for the last 35 years. Let me start by declaring that this film and the storyline, is not only a very difficult subject to translate into film, but to define in the context of a story. The story -- complex, yet simple in nature -- revolves around a Native alcoholic character named Virgil First Raise, played by Chaske Spencer of Twilight fame.
Gary Farmer as Lame Bull. Photo by Michael Coles, mcolesphoto.com
I found Winter in the Blood (winterinthebloodfilm.com) difficult to watch first of all, because in my own personal life I have had to deal with being exposed to the disease of alcoholism in my family and specifically, my mother. In my attempt to be subjective while watching this difficult story unfold, it brought back countless memories and situations that made it very real and agonizing for me to watch, but watch I did. You see, somewhere in my last thirty or so years of being an actor and on the set of some film I was shooting, I happened to have read a book entitled The Indian Lawyer by a Native author named James Welch. Mind you I had never heard of James Welch, but found it interesting that a Native writer had written the story. To this day, I can't remember the name of the film I was working on, but I vividly remember the story I read and how I could hardly put the book down between takes. I was totally mesmerized by the writing, the story and the author. James Welch was a prolific writer and worthy of having his books turned into films. At the time I even considered optioning the book and writing the screenplay myself.
Fast forward to today. I knew Welch's novel was to be a film, and looked forward to seeing the film at the Regal Cinemas in L.A., which was hosting the L.A.Film Festival. Watching Winter in the Blood, I experienced a kaleidoscope of visions and impressions of my own history growing up as a young Indian in that environment. This is a very difficult story to tell, but the film's Native actors pulled it off by virtue of their excellent performances. Spencer, playing the main character, was the catalyst, sparking stellar portrayals from the rest of the cast. I would like to call attention to the outstanding individual performances of Gary Farmer, Casey Camp-Horinek, Michael Spears, and young Alex Escarcega, playing the young Virgil First Raise. As to the filmmaking itself, I thought the directing (by Alex and Andrew Smith, twin brothers famous for the acclaimed 2002 film The Slaughter Rule), could have been a little more creative in the shot selections. The music was fitting, but I would have enjoyed hearing some tunes from Gary Farmer, who is also famous for playing with his band The Troublemakers. The casting, by Renee' Haynes, who is always a total professional, was excellent. The film was shot in and around Havre , Montana, which had to be an experience in and of itself.
Julia Jones as Agnes. Photo by Michael Coles, mcolesphoto.com
Please go see the movie when it comes to your area, and judge for yourself. As an aside, I would hope that Hollywood and the writing community would explore and produce more Native themed story lines in the future and discover a genre that is presently underserved but yet ready to explode. It would also provide opportunities for Native actors and writers to refine and enhance their crafts. Until that happens, we will continue to remain invisible in the various categories of awards that are issued by the arts community, and adversely relegated to the same old roles -- the "ugh" roles, I call them -- of the Western genre.
My final verdict? On a scale of one to three feathers, with three being excellent, I give Winter in the Blood two feathers.
Sonny Skyhawk is a veteran actor of some 58 films and various television episodics, He is an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of South Dakota and founder of American Indians in Film & Television. Writes a guest column for ICTMN entitled "Ask N Ndn", He has been asked by the U.S.State Department to represent the American Indian in various countries. He presently resides in Pasadena, Ca.