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'Smoke Signals' From the Heart

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 3, 1998

  Movie Critic


'Smoke Signals'
Evan Adams plays against stereotypes of Native Americans in "Smoke Signals." (Miramax)

Director:
Chris Eyre
Cast:
Adam Beach;
Evan Adams;
Irene Bedard;
Gary Farmer;
Tantoo Cardinal
Running Time:
1 hour, 29 minutes
PG-13
Emotional intensity and the suggestion of violence
"Smoke Signals" has already established an identity as the first Indian film – that is, the first film written by, performed by and directed by American Indians. That makes it novel. That doesn't make it good.

What makes it good is that the coded communications in "Smoke Signals" don't come from the tribal council, the wickiups, the medicine lodges or even the reservation: They come from the heart. And that's the surprise of the movie, beyond even the humor and humanity of its inside look at contemporary American Indian culture. It's really the oldest and most primal story forms, the one about the old man and the boy.

Both old man and boy are Coeur d'Alene, whose lives are bounded by the bleak reservation fences in northern Idaho. There's not much going on there – a running gag shows a reservation radio station traffic reporter lounging by the side of a barren highway and calling in, "Nope, no traffic yet" – and life on what amounts to a federal dole has worked out predictably: a vicious cycle of hopelessness, alcoholism and abuse.

So it is with Victor Joseph and his father, Arnold, and the usual things between them: love and fear and hatred and violence and the final estrangement. Yet the movie is largely a comedy.

Its two heroes, Victor (Adam Beach) and his pal, punching bag and traveling companion Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams), are a superb duo; the two young actors have reflexive comic timing between them as they leave the reservation on a melancholy errand, a bus trip to Phoenix to retrieve the ashes of Arnold Joseph, who abandoned his wife and son 10 years earlier.

Like travelers in movies and books (but hardly ever in real life), they meet fascinating people, while the more orthodox and stoic Victor tries to teach the irrepressibly callow but optimistic Thomas how to be an Indian. Though Coeur d'Alene were fishermen, he tries to counsel the younger man on how to achieve that stoic, fierce face on the nickel, that look that seems the appropriate mask of a horseback buffalo slayer or Seventh Cavalry vanquisher. Poor Thomas: His brilliant, firecracker mind keeps fixating on ideas, images and stories. He can't stop talking long enough to play the Big Bad Indian game, and with his buckteeth and big square glasses like something Elton John would wear, he looks more as if he'd hug you than scalp you.

The folks they meet aren't that surprising, nor is the lesson they take from the meetings, which is that there's still a lot of racism in this country. The writer, novelist Sherman Alexie (adapting a couple of his short stories), and the director, Cheyenne-Arapaho Chris Eyer, have some fun reversing cliche expectations: When two obnoxious men steal their seats, the two youths don't fight them but retire to the back of the bus, where they wage psychological warfare by singing a rude anthem devoted to John Wayne's teeth.

But their journey is not merely geographic, from mountains to desert, or comic, from one stereotype to its opposite. It's also interior, as each young man recalls his complex relationship with Arnold, who was not merely Victor's father but the man who saved Thomas from the terrifying fire that killed his parents. So the movie drifts back and forth through the past, recalling the tortured path of the Joseph family and its self-destruction.

In an earlier century, Arnold (Gary Farmer), an immense and powerful man, would have directed the best light cavalry troops in the world, or at least been the mightiest salmon fisherman of the Spokane River. But in this century, he's 250 pounds of warrior machismo and strength with nowhere to go, nothing to do, so he's turned furiously inward, quelling his aggressions with beer, which he consumes by the gallon. Farmer is one of those deceptively simple actors. He seems almost comical at first, a huge bear of a man with a little singsong voice, the totem of a thousand studio pics – the drunken Injun. How, Big Chief?

This is how: rage, pain, fury, an almost heroic refusal to be what people expect. Farmer shows the strength behind Arnold's bulk but also the pain. His is the love of others and hatred of the self that too often can only express itself in violence, and Arnold can be a bully. But Farmer never lets him be just a bully, a tyrant chieftain of the absolute. He also shows us a man wracked by self-hatred, guilt and yet desperately full of love. It's a great performance (he may be familiar to some viewers from "Dead Man," the Jim Jarmusch film in which he played Nobody opposite Johnny Depp).

Despite the ethnic specificity of the setting, what these smoke signals are really saying is that the awkwardness between fathers and sons is universal.

   
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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