Writer Sherman Alexie and director Chris Eyre joined forces in 1998 to make the bittersweet comedy "Smoke Signals," a groundbreaking work in Native American filmmaking.
Alexie's bravura yet intimate "The Business of Fancydancing," his venturesome directorial debut, was released earlier this year, and now Eyre's impressive second feature, "Skins," has arrived.
The two new films could scarcely be more different in style and temperament, yet they complement each other perfectly. Both Alexie and Eyre are passionate about bringing authentic Native American experience to the screen, and both deplore the dismal, destructive conditions of reservation life. But "Fancydancing" is boldly stylish, and "Skins, which Jennifer D. Lyne adapted from the Adrian C. Louis novel, is raw and gritty. Alexie's hero has left the reservation to assert his identity as a gay man and to speak out as a Native American poet of protest. Eyre's hero has stayed put, attempting to make a difference as a reservation cop.
Eric Schweig's Rudy Yellow Lodge is beginning to give in to despair in a never-ending battle against crime that grows out of widespread alcoholism. Rudy's reservation is Pine Ridge, site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, where Oglala Sioux live in a dreary rural slum with an ironic backdrop in the grandeur of Mt. Rushmore, with its famous presidential sculptures a desecration of a mountain range sacred to Native Americans.
The bitter legacy of Wounded Knee lingers at ostensibly dry Pine Ridge, where unemployment runs high and alcoholism is epidemic, fueled by the four liquor stores of nearby Whiteclay, Neb. (population 22), from which Native Americans are said to purchase about 4 million cans of beer a year.
Rudy's escalating sense of hopelessness is exacerbated by the chronic drunkenness of his combative older brother Mogie (Graham Greene), who remains traumatized by his brutal tour of duty in Vietnam, where he earned three Purple Hearts.
The brothers once were close and Rudy and Mogie were star football players. But Rudy long ago lost respect for the older brother he once idolized, and Mogie regards Rudy with cynical contempt as a goody-two-shoes.
Rudy has started taking the law into his own hands, however, and his vigilantism will have profound and unexpected consequences for both.
In his two stars, Eyre has two of the foremost Native American actors. Both Schweig and Greene are actors of strong physical presence. Each has emotional range and intensity that demolish movie stereotypes of Indians as stoics.
"Skins" is a wrenching, uncompromisingly bleak film, but its stars, who include talented newcomer Noah Watts as Mogie's son and Lois Red Elk as the brothers' staunch aunt, fill the screen with warmth, humor and spiritual yearning in the face of hardship and tragedy.
First together and now individually, Alexie and Eyre show great promise of an authentic Native American cinema.
MPAA rating: R for language and violence.
Times guidelines: Too brutal for young audiences.
Eric Schweig ... Rudy Yellow Lodge
Graham Greene ... Mogie Yellow Lodge
Noah Watts ... Herbie Yellow Lodge
Lois Red Elk ... Aunt Helen
Michelle Thrush ... Stella
A First Look Pictures presentation. Director Chris Eyre. Producer Jon Kilik. Executive producers Dave Pomier, Chris Cooney, Jeff Cooney. Screenplay Jennifer D. Lyne; based on the novel by Adrian C. Louis. Cinematographer Stephen Kazmierski. Editor Paul Trejo. Music BC Smith. Costumes Ronald Leamon. Production designer. Debbie DeVilla. Art director Gonzalo Cordoba. Set decorator Lisa Scoppa. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
At the Landmark's Cecchi Gori Fine Arts in Beverly Hills; Edwards University 6, Campus Drive across from UCI, Irvine, (949 854-8811).