This is a competent whodunit, and it’s directed by Michael Apted, a director we admire for his Up Series, but it didn’t quite work for me. It takes place on the Sioux rez in the 1970s, when there was a lot of turmoil with militant Indians and the FBI. Two agents were shot and killed, and Leonard Peltier went to prison for it, a case that is controversial to this day. I thought it was going to be about that, but it’s not. It was shot in South Dakota, in and around the actual Wounded Knee memorial.
Val Kilmer is a quarter-Sioux FBI man, sent out there to solve a murder because he’s “Indian,” and might be accepted. Washington is so clueless that they don’t realize he knows nothing of Sioux culture, and in fact—naturally—is quite conflicted about it, practically denying it. You know where this is going to go. He will find sympathy with “his people,” even having visions like a tribal elder. I guess this is what bothers me, the whole buying-in to the idea that Indians are somehow more mystical than the rest of us. They may in fact be more “spiritual” than many whites, but that’s a whole different thing. Magic happens around Indians, because they are more connected to the Great Spirit and nature. Yeah, right. My favorite scene in Little Big Man is when Old Lodge Skins decides it’s time to die, goes up on the mountain, sings his death song, and lies down. Then it starts to rain. He sits up, sighs, and says “Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes it doesn’t.” This is precisely my attitude toward Christian prayer. “Oh, Dad pulled through because we were all praying for him!” Horsepuckey. There’s a dude right down the hall who croaked this morning and he had twice as many people praying for him as your Dad. But believers never see that.
The one thing a little different in this movie is that the main tension is between good (traditional) Indians and bad (assimilated) Indians. The good ones want to keep the sacred land, the bad ones want to sell it to the white man and get rich. Naturally, the FBI, who have jurisdiction over murders on tribal land (and that’s a giant scandal right there, a century after Wounded Knee; why can’t tribal cops and courts handle their own affairs?) bollixes everything up out of greed and ignorance.
So, an okay film, but it had nothing new to say, and I’m tired of seeing white men (Kilmer) be the center of a story about Indians, as in Windtalkers, whose very idea offended me so much I refused to see it. Graham Greene is the best character in this movie, and it would have been a lot better film if it had centered around him, like Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. But nobody has the guts to bring out a movie like this unless there’s white star power on the marquee.