So much of "Thunderheart" is so good and its intentions are so noble that it pains me to reach the ultimate judgment that the movie is a mess.
But it is a mess, good intentions be damned. A large, sprawling murder mystery set on the decaying Lakota Sioux reservation at Pine Ridge, South Dakota, in the late '70s, it seems to get more and more incoherent as it proceeds; its second half is not nearly as engaging as its first.
It's all set-up and no delivery.
Val Kilmer plays a young, fast-track FBI agent who is vaguely embarrassed about his all but ignored quarter-Indian heritage (Kilmer, by the way, is part Cherokee.) When a tribal elder is gunned down in an ugly internecine battle between the radicals and conservatives in reservation politics, Kilmer's Ray Levoi is cynically sent out to satisfy the demand that one of the investigators be Native American. He finds he's entered what amounts to a civil war.
The movie seems drawn, more or less, from the Leonard Peltier case of the mid-1970s, when a well-known Indian activist was conveniently found guilty of the murder of two FBI agents on the basis of evidence that many people have found questionable. Peltier, in fact, is still in prison, though efforts to re-examine the evidence seem to be gathering energy.
What Agent Kilmer finds is an already open-and-shut case as delivered by Special Agent in Charge Sam Shepard and endorsed by the tribal leadership which is ominously overarmed and given to secret police tactics (led by a leathery Fred Ward, now playing bad guys).
The culprit has been deemed to be an activist named Jimmy Looks Twice (well-played by an activist named John Trudell.) When Looks Twice escapes from custody, the movie seems set to devolve into the customary manhunt thing, with Reservation policeman Walter Crow Horse (Graham Greene, from "Dances With Wolves") along as Ray's sidekick.
Inevitably, "Thunderheart" has two subtexts: the first is Ray's inner journey, as he confronts and eventually comes to embrace his Native-American blood and culture. This, in turn, enables him to see through what is clearly a conspiracy bent on destroying the Native-American movement and returning the tribal destiny to the fat cats who've run it since Wounded Knee, as well as disguising the existence of a secret uranium mine.
The only problem is that none of these subtexts really work. Kilmer is the least interesting character in the film and his soul-journey is conveyed in the conventional mystic babble of many dozens of other "spiritual journey" movies.
Worse still, director Michael Apted, working from a script by John Fusco, can't keep the manhunt and Levoi's penetration of the conspiracy from becoming bogged down.
What is brilliant about the film are the performances by the Native Americans, particularly Greene's crafty Crow Horse, who sees things with a clarity that the Feds completely lack. Then there's an activist-teacher named Maggie Eagle Bear (played by Sheila Tousey, a Menominee and Stockbridge-Musnee Indian) who reluctantly befriends Levoi.
Tousey really cracks to life with an authenticity that nearly overwhelms the dolorous Kilmer. When these two are exiled to the edges of the movie, it's a big mistake -- the movie simply loses its charm.
Finally, though Kilmer's own Indian heritage seems somewhat cynically calculated to dispute the charge, the movie still feels like one of those earnest liberal crusades that nevertheless views oppression as a sin because it offends the delicate sensibilities of white people who encounter it. accidentally. A movie about Graham Greene, John Trudell and Sheila Tousey may have indeed been a different movie than this big Hollywood extravaganza starring Val Kilmer that "Thunderheart" turns out to be, but I have a feeling it would have been a better one.
Starring Val Kilmer and Graham Greene.
Directed by Michael Apted.
Released by Tri-Star.