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'Winter in the Blood' celebrates Montana's Hi-Line


February 6, 2014

The one thing that the producer/directors of the new film "Winter in the Blood" capture in a remarkable way is the stunningly spectacular scenery of the mountains, plains and riverbottoms of north-central Montana. Alex and Andrew Smith, the movie-makers from Missoula who were inspired to make a movie of James Welch's first major novel, lay out the striking region of the Hi-Line in a way that has never been seen in film before.

But not only is the natural scenery of the region captured very well in the film but also we get a grim look at the sordid underbelly of the human cultural contribution to the area, the muddy alleys, the squalid hotel rooms and the narrow treacherous highways.

The strongest scenes in the film are those that stick most closely to the dialogue and descriptions of the original novel itself. The opening scene when the central character, Virgil First Raise, is headed back from Havre to his mother's ranch in Fort Belknap Indian Reservation quotes Welch's prose precisely, and it is one of the most moving scenes in the entire film — when Chaske Spencer, who plays the character, is at his best and the narrative is brilliant.

Other scenes in the film that follow the novel closely include where actor Richard Ray Whitman, who plays the narrator's father First Raise, describes the services he performs in repairing farm machinery by "kicking it in the right place." A second unusually effective scene involves the actor Gary Farmer, who does an excellent job playing the farming tribal member Lame Bull, being forced to pay off Virgil First Raise, the central narrator, and his other haybaling helper, so they can head for a drunk in town before Lame Bull's bales are all gathered.

The final scene in the film also involves Gary Farmer in a very moving and humorous funeral speech for the narrator's grandmother, who passes away late in the film.

Other fine scenes taken directly from the novel involve the blind, elder, medicine man Yellow Calf, played by Saginaw Grant, who uncovers critical elements of the plot to Virgil.

But the strongest acting, besides Virgil First Raise and Lame Bull, is that of the film's most experienced actor, David Morse, and its least experienced and youngest actor, Alex Escarega. Watching Morse in a major scene demonstrated how he developed his excellent role.

David Morse is the Airplane Man, escaped with the money from a robbery, who is trying to get Virgil to help him take off to Canada. My fondest memory of the film production which I observed was the Airplane Man's arrest outside a Chinook bar. Seeing this scene during several takes, I was thoroughly impressed with the manner in which a seasoned actor like Morse developed his character through the series of re-enactments of the same scene from different camera angles and character perspectives, unfortunately mostly omitted from the final film.

The actor who more than any other steals the film is the young Virgil First Raise, played by the strikingly handsome young man Alex Escarega. The trouble with Escarega is that his honesty in his role is so compelling that he captures too much of the interest of the film, which should more properly be focused on the more mature Virgil. We tend to think the directors as well were led a bit astray by Ecarega's brilliance because they devote more time in the film to the experiences of the young Virgil rather than the much greater emphasis of the novel which is concentrated on the more mature Virgil.

The women in the film are also compelling. Lily Gladstone as the tragically sad Marlene is especially outstanding when she is left deserted and alone in her bleak hotel room. But Virgil's sexy under-dressed wife Agnes is also well played by Julia Jones.

Overall, the film perhaps spends too much time with the young Virgil, rather than the 32-year-old Virgil, who is the central focus of the novel. Another problem with the editing of the film is that flashbacks are not clearly delineated as memory, so the narrative line seems to be lost sometimes in the rapid switching back-and-forth between varied time periods.

All-in-all, I would certainly recommend the movie to everyone, however. It is based on the best novel of reservation life and life in north central Montana, written by the best of contemporary Montana novelists, the late James Welch.

(Bill Thackeray taught English and Native Studies at Montana State University-Northern before his retirement, He has written several articles on James Welch's novel "Winter in the Blood.")


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