August 20, 2008

Review of Mile Post 398

Heard Museum Film FestivalMile Post 398 (2007, 110 min, USA)--In this harrowing yet at times uproarious tale of how a young Navajo man attempts to free himself from bondage to drugs and alcohol, award-winning Navajo husband and wife filmmakers Shonie and Andee De La Rosa take the viewer on an inside tour of Navajo contemporary life with a universal resonance. From his earliest memories, Cloyd (Beau Benally) has witnessed the uglier side of life while being surrounded by alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Each time he attempts to turn over a new leaf his friends Jimmy and Marty (Navajo comedy duo James and Ernie, themselves recovering substance abusers) mastermind a plan to sway Cloyd from his ultimate hope of saving himself and beloved family. A choice must be made, but only Cloyd holds the power to salvage what is left of his life, or allow it to slip away into despair. The first full feature film to be produced entirely on the Navajo Nation and utilize an entire Navajo cast and crew. The film also features the music of Coalition, Ethnic De Generation, Keddah, Rising Conviction and Aaron White.Comment:  Shonie De La Rosa sent me a copy of his feature-length film a few months ago. I finally have a moment to share some thoughts on it.

Is Mile Post 398 a perfect Native film? A riveting slice of rez life? Let's see.

The good

  • Mile Post 398 presents an eye-opening look at the alcohol culture that prevails on many reservations. It shows how the sins of the father become the sins of the child in a difficult-to-break chain.

  • The actors all do a fine job. The standout is Ernest David Tsosie III as the supportive friend Ray. I'd say he deserved the Best Supporting Actor award from the American Indian Film Festival 2007.

  • When Cloyd loses his job because of his drinking, you think he's going to spiral down the drain. But when his wife tells him to find a new job, he picks himself up and does it. The movie transforms itself from hopeless to hopeful.

  • Mile Post 398 is possibly the most realistic depiction of rez life ever put in a feature film. You don't just see a few staged set pieces; you see mile after mile of small towns, cheap homes, and empty roads filmed from the ground up. It seems as real as a documentary.

  • When Cloyd goes job-hunting, you feel his plight. He's too poor to own a car and there's no public transit, so he has to hitchhike. Every town and job is 20-30 miles from the next one. It's not hard to imagine how Navajos can become mired in poverty despite their best efforts.

  • A couple of scenes are outstanding. When Jimmy and Marty tempt Cloyd at mile post 398 (their drinking spot), the camera circles them for what seems like minutes. You practically beg Cloyd not to give in to the pressure and drink. When Ray takes Cloyd to a scenic canyon, the two sit 20-30 feet apart with their backs to each other. Each confesses his sins and you can see the other over his shoulder, like a conscience.

  • The bad

  • The first quarter of Mile Post 398 is tough to figure out. There's a man dancing with women, a woman waiting in a hallway, a boy playing in a truck, and a bunch of guys drinking around a bonfire. Eventually you learn that the man, woman, and boy are a family being shown in flashbacks. The boy grows up to be Cloyd, one of the drinkers.

  • Cloyd's confession comes at about the 3/4 mark. It should've been the climax, followed by a brief denouement. Instead the film goes on. There's an extended scene in which Jimmy and Marty tempt Cloyd to drink again. That should've taken place before the emotional high point, not after.

  • A surprise ending literally comes out of nowhere and does nothing to help the movie. Fortunately, it's easy to pretend it never happened, since it doesn't fit the rest of the story.

  • The ugly

  • As drunks, Cloyd, Jimmy, and Marty bray and cackle like madmen. They sound like people sprayed with Joker venom who are laughing themselves to death. They're so loud and incoherent that it's often impossible to follow them. A couple of times the movie provides subtitles even though they're speaking English, not Navajo.

  • Note to filmmakers: If your English-speaking actors need translators, something's wrong. If you have to portray drunks, tone it down...way down. Make them quiet drunks who speak in slurred but normal tones. Think Dean Martin, Red Skelton, or Foster Brooks, not a two-legged donkey.


    So Mile Post 398 isn't a perfect Native film. If the De La Rosas had avoided the structural problems and the hard-to-understand drunks, it could've been great. As it is, I'd say it's very good. Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.

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


    Anonymous said...

    Glad it didn't get a review like T-Rose did from writerfella. That would have really sucked.

    Wilson said...

    First of all, the review of the movie is great however I do disagree with Mr. Schmidt on his statement about the loud drunks. He apparently has never been around drunks like that. I’ve known a lot of people like that. I think if you’re trying to portray the real life of the rez then that part holds true. I mean...sure you have some silent ones...but the ones that hang out with Cloyd are the ones that are loud. Maybe that’s why he likes them...because they’re fun to hang around with. The silent ones are the ones that are most unstable when they’re drunk...

    Anonymous said...

    I totallly disagree with Mr. Schmidt on the comments of the film. First of all if you've never been on the rez, or know the culture of the Navajo, then yes you'd say the things you said about not understanding the ending of the film. We know what it means to see a coyote,and what will happen.
    This film is depicted close to what my life was like, and what I did to my own family. Yes I had some freinds just the way the film has it, I tried to do the right thing, but my so called "friends" would pop up, just like in the film.
    I have heard others comment on how so close to home this film has been, with tears rolling down their cheeks.


    malkaphoenix said...

    Having been married to an alcoholic Navajo myself, the drunk scenes are frighteningly realistic. The film depicted what my life was like 42 years ago. Yes, I had tears rolling down my cheeks as well.

    Rob said...

    I never said the portrayal of drinking wasn't realistic. I'm sure it was. But this is one case where I wish it would've been a little less realistic.

    I think the portrayal of drunks is one area where the transformative power of filmmaking was called for. Mile Post 398 could've toned down the portrayals by making them quieter and more coherent. Or it could've spent less time on them.

    I mean, how much screen time was devoted to the drunken behavior: 15-20 minutes? It seemed like that much or more. I'm guessing that 5-7 minutes of the same behavior would've persuaded viewers without drowning them in the drinking culture.

    This is one case where less would've been more. The goal wasn't, or shouldn't have been, to recreate drunken behavior with 100% fidelity. Otherwise, the film would've been nothing but a long documentary. The goal should've been to show enough of it to convey its reality without turning viewers off.

    Do the extended drinking bouts work as a filmmaking device? To me the question isn't whether they're effective to people who have experienced them. The question is whether they're effective to people who haven't experienced them--i.e., the vast majority of the potential audience. They're the ones who don't know about the problem and need to learn about it.

    I'd probably say this about any negative behavior: binging and purging, abusing drugs, beating a spouse, etc. I don't need to see 15-20 minutes of it up close and personal. If I didn't know it already, I got the message after a couple of minutes: Drinking hurts people. Drinking ruins lives. Etc.

    The value of a movie such as Mile Post 398 comes not from the displays of drinking but from what comes before and after them. Why did Cloyd start drinking and will he stop? That's the main thing I want to glean from a movie like this. Not the fact that drinking is bad, but why it's bad and what can be done about it.

    Rob said...

    I'd say something similar about the surprise ending--which no one should reveal. Does it work as a filmmaking device? It may work for Navajos, but I'm part of the 99.9% of the audience that isn't Navajo. It didn't do anything for me except leave me puzzled.

    If Shonie de la Rosa was speaking only to Navajos, then feel free to ignore my comments. But if he wanted everyone to understand his film, then my views are relevant. I'm saying the ending didn't work for me, the non-Native viewer who watches Native movies. Make of that what you will.

    Rob said...

    By the way, Ernie, when you say you "totally disagree" with my comments, does that mean you disagree with all the positive things I said, too? Do you disagree with my 8.0 rating, which puts Mile Post 398 on a level with Pow Wow Highway, Smoke Signals, and Skins? Hmm. Maybe you should try to be more positive, like me. ;-)

    modest-goddess said...

    Where can I see this film? It is not on Netflix and I live in rural Missouri. Is it online?

    Rob said...

    Visit Sheephead Films at for info about Mile Post 398's availability.