January 23, 2009

The Only Good Indian = history lesson

Film Review:  The Only Good IndianFilmmaker Kevin Willmott, a Kansas film professor, gives us a history lesson here. A fictional distillation of the U.S. government's attempt to assimilate American Indians into white culture, "The Only Good Indian" is well-suited for cultural anthropology classes, university video series and festival settings.

Unfortunately, its wobbly and preachy dramatic narrative diminishes its power. We're getting a lecture here in skimpy dramatic clothing. The most powerful social statements in dramatic film, of course, are those that seek to entertain first without showing their editorial seams; "In the Heat of the Night," is a glowing example.

This well-meaning and intelligent Sundance entrant lacks the storytelling finesse to do this woeful historical injustice the wider appeal it deserves.
And:There are patches where the storytelling is actually entertaining thanks largely to the talents of the cast members. Studi's subtle and conflicted performance is the film's highlight, ably amplified by Frank's appealing turn as the young boy stricken by a chauvinistic Christian culture.

Director Willmott deserves commendation for assembling such a wide-span story on an obviously limited budget; however, the monotony of his shot compositions, stiff cadence and tedious pacing detract from the film's message. Occasionally, there are John Ford homages with skyscapes and silhouettes, but ultimately this one is just too much by-the-book, aesthetically and thematically.
Comment:  I was afraid of this.

I've posted a few glowing reports about this movie. Some people may have confused "important subject matter" with "compelling storytelling."

It's too bad filmmakers don't pass their scripts by me before they film them. We'd have better Native-themed movies if they did. <g>

For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.


Anonymous said...

"It's too bad filmmakers don't pass their scripts by me before they film them. We'd have better Native-themed movies if they did" Are you suggesting we need a white guy to guide us into good film-making? Gotcha!!!! Sadly, I'm only half joking. I haven't seen this film so I can't really comment.

Rob said...

No, I'm suggesting that most filmmakers could use a good script reader to improve their writing. That includes The Only Good Indian's writer Thomas L. Carmody and director Kevin Willmott. As far as I know, neither of them are Native.

Natives would be the best judges of the Native aspects of the script, of course. But I bow to no one in terms of knowing what makes a story succeed or fail. If I'm not the most critical person on the planet, I'm close.

In The Only Good Indian's case, the review said it was too much of a history lesson. This is a storytelling issue, not a Native issue. I could revise a script that's "a lecture ... in skimpy dramatic clothing" as well as anyone.