Winter in the Blood
Runs Thurs., Feb. 27–Thurs., March 6 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 98 minutes.
With Sherman Alexie among its producers (and its cast, in a small role), this Montana-set ’70s drama shows nothing but fidelity to its source novel. The late Native American writer James Welch published Winter in the Blood in 1974, and it can’t have been easy to adapt to the screen. Filmmakers Andrew and Alex Smith have given a name to Welch’s protagonist—Virgil, played by Chaske Spencer—that suggests his quest, though his voyage is mostly internal. A vision of his long-dead father, drunk in the snow, jars Virgil into a somewhat surreal bender, interlaced with flashbacks to his youth. Figures from memory (or fantasy) are presented as plausible characters to us; though they also have a cockeyed trickster gleam. David Morse shows up as the rowdy, free-spending “Airplane Man,” who’d be right at home in a Hunter S. Thompson novel. Virgil helps him, doesn’t trust him, and may in fact have invented him—but such distinctions swiftly fall away during this picaresque vision quest.
Alcoholism and broken families being among its themes, this movie might’ve been one of those grim, miserable Sundance studies of life on the rez. But as in Alexie’s best work (I haven’t read Welch), there’s instead a comic aversion to self-pity. Virgil gets beaten and knocked down, but he’s a resilient sort of fatalist—rubbery, no wooden Indian. “My dream always ends badly,” says our self-aware hero. “I don’t know what it means, but it has something to do with pain.”
The Smiths are from Montana, like Welch, and shows. This is a movie lovingly shot on location in that state’s Hi-Line region, with authentic textures and faces that greatly enhance the slim, lyrical story. The cast is mostly Native, and you may recognize Spencer from the Twilight movies (he was Sam, one of the werewolf clan). Also true to the novel is a dreamy-poetic collapsing of time, though the film is a little too foggy on the particulars of Virgil’s present-day family. But sometimes clarity is overrated. If Virgil may fret that he’s traveling in “a four-day circle,” Winter in the Blood finally lands him in a place that feels exactly right. (Note: Alexie and the Smiths will introduce Thursday’s screening, with the Smiths also attending Friday and Saturday.)