Winter in the Blood

A Film Review
By Justin Eagle Gauthier

flyer Winter in the BloodThemes of remembrance, forgetting, and alienation, run through co-directors and twin brothers Alex and Andrew Smith’s film adaptation of seminal Blackfoot/GrosVentre author James Welch’s influential 1974 novel, “Winter in the Blood.” The film splits open the bones of the novel and exposes the marrow of those most base and harrowing themes in the human experience: loss of loved ones, the search for self-identity, the listlessness of an isolated existence, and self destruction braided into the twin specters of addiction and willful abandon.

The arresting opening image finds Virgil First Raise splayed in a ditch on the high plains awakening from a drunken stupor. Just as the viewer begins realizing the moment they’ve been thrust into, a series of flashback cuts reveals the visceral Chief Bigfoot-esque imagery of Virgil’s own father frozen in a palsied death pose. These introductory scenes establish the kind of mercurial grasp of time and perception the filmmakers utilize throughout the film.

Virgil First Raise is a damaged man, haunted by the ghosts of his past while drowning his present in a tide of alcoholism. Assuming the role of Virgil, Chaske Spencer, of Twilight fame, turns in an even-handed and admirable performance. Tasked with this difficult portrayal, Spencer manages to bare the brunt of self-destruction and bleary-eyed remembrances with empathetic fragility.

Much has been made of the fact that Virgil’s journey throughout the novel is very much in accord with the coming-of-age GrosVentre vision quest. This same type of self-discovery and maturation is present as an undercurrent in the film version of Welch’s story. In adapting the novel, the Smith brothers and screenwriter Ken White present an intricately layered viewing experience. The final product is impressive considering the writing team addresses the aforementioned themes while still managing to give multiple opportunities for the viewer to pick up on Virgil’s inner struggle with his Indian-ness.

Truly, Virgil exists in a liminal state. He can neither live in the present nor let go of the past. He cannot fully embrace his perceived half-breed status as he feels beaten on both sides. In making the issue of blood quantum implicit, White and the Smiths have written a superbly conceived, lovingly nested narrative that both pays homage to James Welch and speaks to a polarizing issue in Indian Country.

Despite being set in the seventies, the film achieves timelessness, due in part to careful production design. Andrew Smith has stated that they wanted to present the film as a period piece but not a ‘capital P’ period piece. This consideration proved prescient as the humanity and journey of Virgil First Raise takes center stage. In this way, the film emulates one of the major touchstones of Welch’s novel in that it strives to portray a contemporary Indian experience while presenting a story familiar enough to speak to anyone.

Set on the Fort Belknap Reservation, “Winter in the Blood” brings the viewer into a region of America and, more specifically, Indian Country that has rarely been given the big screen treatment. Cinematographer Paula Huidobro does an excellent job of capturing the sublime nature of the high plains in all of its beauty, isolation, and at times and in places, desolation.

In terms of casting, Rene Hayes has done an excellent job. The supporting players mesh well with each other and enhance the nuanced performance by Spencer. David Morse turns in an intriguing performance as the Airplane Man. In Virgil’s otherness and malaise, the Airplane Man is presented as a fixed point. In my estimation, he represents a manifestation of the inter-generational and ongoing terror of colonialism. If Virgil is on a vision quest, the airplane man is his doubt and pain.

The brothers Smith manage to imbue this work with a definitive style. In eschewing a linear storyline, they embrace the fraught, chaotic life of an addict. Through recollecting Virgil’s pained past in vignettes, the viewer is allowed a veiled peek into the inner-workings of his bleak worldview. As we ride along with him, taking glances into the smudged rearview mirror of his life, we begin to understand the reasoning behind Virgil’s self-destruction. The frustration of not belonging, the cruelty of not knowing ones own place in the world, these issues lie at the crux of Virgil’s conflict with himself.

In the culminating third act, the filmmakers use death and discovery as revelation. Through self-reliance and the beginnings of acceptance, Virgil manages a reconciliation of sorts, a reckoning of his past losses. Before the end credits roll we are given hope that Virgil may defeat his demons but we also realize that at this point in his life, it may be enough that Virgil First Raise is simply alive to fight another day.

Menominee Tribal member Justin Eagle Gauthier has been featured in several literary journals. He is currently enrolled in the LoRez MFA program in creative writing studying screenwriting at the Institute of American Indian Arts.