Virgil First Raise can’t catch a break. It’s bad enough waking up bruised and hungover in a ditch in the Montana plains—but then having a vision of your dead father? That’s rough. Never mind that once he comes home to his ranch on the reservation, his wife has run off, and she’s taken his prized rifle with her. What choice does he have but to set out after her, or at least after the gun?
So begins the surreal, intimate odyssey of Winter in the Blood, full of drunken and possibly dreamed intrigue in a small town in Montana’s Hi-Line, the great northern flats of the state. The harsh and pragmatic life of the plains and the clear horizon becomes anything but plain and clear to Virgil and the viewer; strange characters and twists abound. Who is this mysterious ‘Airplane Man’? What do those two men in suits want with him? Are they of this world or merely shadows of Virgil’s mind, meant to lead him to personal revelations?
Directors Alex and Andrew Smith use a cinematic language that is supremely poetic that keeps the story engaging and mysterious without becoming kooky at its odder moments. Objects, people, places all take on richer meanings as the film moves forward—and Virgil moves backwards and forward. The arrow of time is not entirely linear in Virgil’s world, and this is definitely Virgil’s world on screen, as external coincidences become a poignant expression of his state of mind. A prime example: Virgil stands up in a bar, pushed to the brink of his wits, and is inadvertently framed between a window on his left and a mirror on his right. A train plows through the shot, putting him at the center of a head on collision by two unstoppable forces. It’s a sharp shot that could have been cartoonish in other hands.
Past and present often collide as well, and Virgil responds physically as the former rears its head. One moment he his walking down the street and a beer bottle is thrown at the wall behind him. Startled, he turns to look and we see him and his brother as children, throwing bottles to blow off steam after a run-in with neighborhood bullies. This seamless transition is not immediately explained to the audience, and one is kept on one’s toes trying to follow the dreamlike nature of the story. It can be tough to know right away what is a memory and what is the present, but the craft of the shots make it all more rewarding than frustrating and suggest that for Virgil, the line between the two is not definite—and perhaps this is also true for others, for us.
This is the second feature from the Smith brothers. (The Slaughter Rule was their first) Based on the 1974 novel of the same title by James Welch, Winter in the Blood is a deeply personal film for both directors. They were privileged enough to have grown up knowing the late great author, whose book gave them solace as they themselves dealt with the premature death of their father, alcoholism and the isolation of living on a ranch in the American West. For them it was of personal importance to achieve an authentic portrayal of Welch’s novel, which they were able to do with the help of an incredibly talented cast and crew. Chaske Spencer (of Lakota Sioux descent, true to the region) is great as Virgil, and David Morse plays the enigmatic Airplane Man well without stealing any scenes, which is the way it should be when the character of Virgil—and the landscape itself—is the true enigma for the audience to unravel.
Personally I find it rare to have an adaptation of a book to a film where I not only feel inspired to read the book, but to watch the film again immediately. Winter in the Blood is one of those films.
Winter will be screening at the Northwest Film Forum from February 27 through March 6 as part of their Indigenous showcase series in collaboration with Longhouse Media. Producer Sherman Alexie will be in attendance on Thursday, February 27, and the directors will be there February 27, 28 and 29.