Dir: Chris Eyre. US. 2002. 86min
Viewers looking to Native American director Chris Eyre for a buoyant follow-up to his 1996 indie smash Smoking Signals will come away disappointed with Skins, a film that like his feature debut, examines life at a dilapidated Indian reservation from the inside, but lacks the former's coherence, emotional engagement and power. Indeed, what begins as an exploration of the shabby socio-economic conditions of the all but neglected reservations quickly escalates into a fragmentary and sentimental family drama, centring on the problematic but loving relationship of two vastly different brothers (well-played by Graham Greene and Eric Schweig). This film which premiered at Sundance will not reach the public that embraced Smoke Signals, one of the most commercial indies of the 1990s. Rather, Skins is likely to stay within the domain of specialised circuit for a brief theatrical run, before heading for a brighter future on cable and other ancillary markets.
It's so rare to see movies about Native Americans by Native American filmmakers that one hesitates to criticise a film and a director who's clearly a leader of a movement within the new independent cinema. And yet, coming at the heels of Smoke Signals, one expects more from Eyre, whose film is handicapped by his digressive direction as well as Jennifer D Lyne's script, which unfolds as a series of gestures and episodes.
Politically speaking, Skins could not have been be better-timed: it's no secret that socially and economically most Indian reservations are in shambles, with rampant alcoholism, unemployment and deprivation. According to recent statistics, the life expectancy of a Native American is 15 years shorter than that of most Americans, and death from alcoholism is nine times more than the national average.
Based on the novel by Adrian C Louis, the script is set at the present time, though history continues to exert its painful burden. One hundred years after the Wounded Knee massacre, the open sore of the Indian wars still reverberates through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where the Oglala Sioux attempt to preserve their ancient dignity, while living on welfare cheques and surplus commodity food.
For Rudy Yello Lodge (Schweig), the ramifications are clearly visible in the domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse he confronts as a criminal investigator with the police department. Basically, Rudy's job is to protect the inhabitants from themselves. And indeed, the first act chronicles the routine tasks in Rudy's daily schedule: locking up drunks, arresting disorderly men who beat their wives out of frustration. Most of the violence is linked to alcohol abuse.
Through flashbacks, we learn of the boys' youth, of how older brother Mogie, a cheerful football star, was Rudy's childhood hero. At present, however, Mogie (Greene) is still haunted by memories of the Vietnam war, and he's caught in the destructively violent cycle begun by his parents. Though he'd like to take care of his 17-year-old son, Herbie (Watts), a bright kid in need of authority figure, Mogie is a drunk in trouble with the law, which makes him a persistent source of embarrassment for his younger brother.
It takes about half an hour for Skins to find its narrative centre, which details the tangled web of interactions among Rudy, Mogie and Herbie. The movie comes to life in several scenes which depict how Rudy takes the law into his own hands, demonstrating the ongoing tension between his ego and alter ego. Disguised with black shoe polish and a stocking over his head, Rudy acts as a vigilante bent on dispensing swift justice. Ironically, Rudy and Mogie achieve some measure of redemption by a tragic mistake, when through Rudy's trail of vengeance, he unwittingly injures Mogie while retaliating against a powerful liquor business, generated in the border town of Whiteclay, Nebraska.
The yarn takes a melodramatic turn after Mogie is diagnosed with a terminal cirrhosis of the liver and ends up in the hospital. From then on, Skins is extremely soft and sappy, leading to a series of predictable familial reconciliations. In some tender scenes, as Mogie recuperates, he and Rudy lay bare some of the darker, unspoken events of their past, and in so doing, begin a process of mending and healing their formerly shattered bond.
Skins concludes on a bouncy, emotionally satisfying note, when Rudy travels to Mount Rushmore to honour his brother as well as his people, executing one final, liberating act of defiance against the national monument that will make audiences cheer.
Unfortunately, the film suffers from narrative and structural weaknesses. Most sequences literally bump into one other, without much continuity, and flashbacks from the siblings' childhood are inserted in a disruptive manner. The whole movie is abrupt and disjointed, giving the impression of a rushed, patchwork job.
That said, Eyre still manages to convey clearly and urgently the desolate life of inhabitants on contemporary Indian reservations. Hopefully, Skins will serve as a wake-up call for a much needed reform, initiated from the inside and the outside.
Prod co: A First look Media presentation in association with Starz Encore Entertainment of a Grandview Pictures production.
Int'l sales: Overseas Filmgroup/First Look Pictures
Exec prods: Dave Pomier, Chris Cooney, Jeff Cooney
Prod: Jon Kilik
Scr: Jennifer D Lyne, based on the novel by Adrian C Louis
Cinematography: Stephen Kazmierski
Prod des: Debbie DeVilla
Ed: Paul Trejo
Music: BC Smith
Main cast: Graham Greene, Eric Schweig, Gary Farmer, Noah Watts, Michelle Thrush