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November 25, 2002

Skinwalkers

Believe it or not, this is the first American-made movie for the PBS series Mystery!. Produced by Robert Redford (among others), directed by Chris Eyre (Smoke Signals), scripted by James (son of Robert) Redford and based on the novel by Tony Hillerman, this film is a curious mix of American elements that make sense as a public television endeavor. On the one hand, there may not be a more mainstream actor of quality Americana than Robert Redford. On the other hand, there may not be anything more innately American than a Native American. May more Sundance relationships be granted PBS funding.

Wes Studi (Last of the Mohicans, Geronimo) and Adam Beach (Smoke Signals, Windtalkers) star with a rather large collection of other native actors as the investigators, suspects, victims and peripheral characters in a serial-murder mystery on an Arizona Indian reservation. It’s the actors that make this movie work. Their characters and the subtle, plausible relationships between them are the meat of the movie. The story is not. Medicine men are being killed, symbols are being painted in their blood, and old industrial crimes are being examined as a result. None of this is especially captivating, and yet I never got up or changed the channel. If nothing else, it’s always a treat to see Wes Studi on screen.

For the first hour, I was formulating some thought about how the location shoot and the photography seemed nice, but not nice enough. Later on I came to appreciate what I was being given rather than what I wanted to see. This is a grounded, contemplative film (a mystery, after all) and the photography supports that. When we’re shown the sweat lodge, it’s clear that there is a wide and lovely landscape behind it. This is big sky country. Rather than show us a wide, wide shot with tiny bodies and a miniaturized lodge in the middle ground, we’re given a shot composed mostly of the lodge and its visitors. The mountains and big sky can be seen, but genuinely in the background. We appreciate the big sky by the sunlight on an actor’s face.

As a mystery, though, this movie isn’t very compelling. Given the subject matter, it needed to be creepier and less charming. Once you’ve been charmed, though, who wants less charm? I’d be happy to see a sequel produced to this picture. I’d be happy if that one was spookier, so long as it was still charming.

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