By David Rooney
An honorable if only intermittently satisfying attempt to access a journey that takes place almost entirely inside the protagonist's head.
Chaske Spencer of "The Twilight Saga" stars in twin brothers Alex & Andrew Smith's adaptation of Native American writer James Welch's 1974 novel.
There’s no questioning the profound personal investment and deep connection to the wide-open spaces of Montana that grace Alex & Andrew Smith’s Winter in the Blood, the twin brothers’ first feature since their brooding 2002 coming-of-age drama The Slaughter Rule. But in remaining true to the spirit of Native American writer James Welch’s landmark 1974 novel, they have not succeeded in solving the central problem of how to render in emotionally involving narrative terms a fundamentally page-bound, internalized story.
An obvious labor of love, this hand-crafted film is beautifully made–photographed, scored and edited with a grubby lyricism that makes its shortage of plot momentum all the more frustrating. However, admirers of Welch’s books about Native American life, exploring the struggle to maintain cultural, ancestral and physical ties to the past while navigating a way forward, will find rewards in the drama’s cumulatively affecting final stretch.
By Dylan Sharp
Between the nostalgia and the tragedy, you'd be forgiven for feeling a little stifled. Welch's novel came out in 1974. This film, for all intents and purposes, could have come out in 1974 as well. It uses that era's sweeping aesthetic and tragic, freedom-seeking characters to create an experience that feels old--and not in an entirely pleasant way either. I found myself asking throughout the film, "But what about now? Has anything changed?" Perhaps in Montana things haven't changed that much. But the themes of our stories have changed slightly and these days there's something about the source material that seems to portray tribal misery in a romantic manner that's slightly uncomfortable. The film version does little to update the story and as a result, some of its vitality is sacrificed. There's something very Montana about this project--kind of backwards and a little old fashioned. It works in that odd paradoxical way that it doesn't.
It seems the Smith brothers set out to make a very specific type of western--one in which nearly all of the thrills of the traditional western are either withheld or turn out to be fantasies. What's left is a portrait of a forgotten individual on a lonesome landscape. Not completely pleasant and not totally real, Winter in the Blood isn't the kind of movie with much of a shot at getting a major theatrical release. But true aficionados will want to track this down. There simply aren't many true Westerns out there these days--and while it may be a little inverted, this is nothing if not a true Western.