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Theme Tuesday - Indigenous Voices - Winter in the Blood

For April 2018, I will be exploring films that feature indigenous people in leading roles and feature narratives about the identity of such people and the society that has inevitably oppressed them.


When Virgil St. Raise (Chaske Spencer) wakes up in a ditch at the beginning of this story, it kind of feels like he and (we the viewers) never really escape it. Virgil stumbles through life in a haze of alcohol and sex. In true male fashion, he thinks he can find some redemption if he is able to find his wife who has left him, but it’s hardly enough to get his life back on track. He is too caught up in his own pain, internal and external.

Winter in the Blood (adapted from the novel of the same name by James Welch) does not attempt to impose a narrative on Virgil, mainly because it is painful enough just seeing what kind of trouble Virgil gets into without giving him the burden of a narrative. A reflective, dreamy voiceover hovers over the movie as Virgil’s disembodied psyche, as if it can hardly believe the pain and suffering that a body could go through. In fact, the main motif in his life is that he is valued more for his body and what it can serve. Whether it is a sad one-night stand with a white woman, or to serve as a scapegoat so that a White man can smuggle drugs across the Canadian border while the mounties interrogate Virgil, who is half Blackfoot, half White.

Still, the film does have some lighter touches, mainly in the form of his family. His mother is caring enough but more has no illusions about how broken and flawed her son is. She is courted by a family friend who is more handsy than really appropriate. I rather liked most of the women in the film, especially Lily Gladstone (of Certain Women fame) who manages real pathos and pain even in a small role. The film does fall into the trap of making the experiences of Native women secondary to the main male character, but it certainly does not let Virgil off the hook. While we get many attempts to make the main character relatable with flashbacks to his childhood, it is a struggle to empathize with him.

The real star of this movie is the stunning cinematography of Paula Huidoboro. The landscapes are beautifully captured yet they seem to be an extension of Virgil’s psych. The way they are shot with their unique lighting and how Virgil is framed always at odds with his environment make great visual drama. Winter in the Blood definitely has great pretensions of embodying the spiritual and physical disenfranchisement of indigenous groups in America, but I think it falls a little short of that since so many narratives are left out from such a complex experience. Still, it is an interesting character study that looks great and has some admirable artistic flourishes.

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