Whatever white America doesn't know -- or refuses to acknowledge -- about the grim realities of life on the nation's Indian reservations has been coming to light through a growing body of Native American writing and the long-overdue emergence of films shot on location in Indian country, using largely indigenous casts.
Director Chris Eyre, whose engaging 1997 road movie, Smoke Signals, helped energize this modest new wave of Native American filmmaking, is bound to open even more eyes with his bold second feature, Skins. Filmed on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and Nebraska, it's a vivid look at two Oglala Sioux brothers so deeply scarred by the poverty, alcoholism and frustration they've been immersed in for decades that they've even broken their bond with each other. Rudy Yellow Lodge (Eric Schweig) is an investigator with the Pine Ridge Police Department; he's bombarded by wife-beating incidents, drunk and disorderly complaints and the occasional murder. Most troubling of all, his self-destructive older brother, Mogie (Graham Greene), is killing himself with the bottle and regularly runs afoul of the law. Some cops would simply go numb from such pressure. Rudy tries to cope by cooking up an alter ego -- a midnight vigilante with a nylon stocking pulled over his head who dispenses swift justice to teenage punks and the profiteers who operate liquor stores on the fringes of the rez. If swaggering Dirty Harry Callahan was pathologically dedicated to defying police bureaucracy and what he saw as softheaded judges, Rudy Yellow Lodge's avenging angel faces an even more daunting task: He means to redeem an entire people -- including himself -- through the smallest secret acts.
Don't get the idea, however, that Skins is some kind of muscle-bound tribute to Indian machismo. Working from a beautifully written novel by Adrian C. Louis (a Lovelock Paiute, former newspaper editor and college English teacher at Pine Ridge), director Eyre and screenwriter Jennifer D. Lyne mix their moods with great skill. Along with plenty of rage and sorrow -- and some reheated history lessons about Custer and Wounded Knee -- the filmmakers also provide unexpected humor and telling glimpses into the religious strength of Native Americans. Mogie may be devastated by booze and his nightmares of Vietnam, but he grasps the comic ironies of survival on the rez, and brother Rudy rightly sees farce in the quandary of being a man with a badge who's losing authority over his own feelings. Like the semi-autobiographical, self-examining Indian writer in Sherman Alexie's admirable film The Business of Fancy Dancing, the Yellow Lodge brothers understand the complexities of life -- not least the dynamic tension between spiritual riches and material impoverishment.
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The interplay between these two gifted actors is magnificent. A TV regular and a veteran of such films as The Scarlet Letter and The Last of the Mohicans, Schweig is also a recovering alcoholic, so the empathy he brings to the role of a cop drenched in booze-related problems is obviously the real thing. Assertive yet vulnerable, Rudy is the perfect emotional foil for the tragic figure of Mogie. Graham Greene is, of course, perhaps the best-known and most respected American Indian actor of our time, having appeared in dozens of TV programs and more than fifty films -- including Hollywood blockbusters like Dances With Wolves and The Green Mile. It's clear that Skins is a real labor of love for Greene, so detailed and heartfelt is his portrayal of a man whose vital organs may be doomed but whose vitality is unassailable. He will live on not just through his troubled son, Herbie (Noah Watts), but through a transcendent act of wit, justice and redemption performed by his brother. Afterward, none of us -- red, black, brown, yellow or white -- are likely to think of the outsized display of U.S. presidents carved onto Mount Rushmore in quite the same light.
Meanwhile, it's encouraging to see committed young artists like Alexie and Eyre getting a chance, however limited, to go to work behind the camera. Films such as Smoke Signals and Skins are unlikely to become mass-audience hits, and the U.S. government is even less likely to provide financial subsidies -- as Canada does -- to indigenous filmmakers. But this first generation of Native American movie directors has already managed to make great strides: While prodding the collective conscience of the U.S. mainstream with their disturbing views of the reservation, they have also opened the door to a vibrant spirit world unknown to all but a few.