A story of conflict and eventual reconciliation between two Oglala Sioux brothers, "Skins" exposes the largely invisible reverse side of American prosperity by humanizing the scourge of alcoholism in dirt-poor Indian communities.
A story of conflict and eventual reconciliation between two Oglala Sioux brothers, “Skins” exposes the largely invisible reverse side of American prosperity by humanizing the scourge of alcoholism in dirt-poor Indian communities. Second feature from Native American filmmaker Chris Eyre — feted at Sundance for “Smoke Signals” in 1998 — has a patched-together feel, and its aims as human drama, social documentary and vigilante movie are never quite reconciled. But the delicately rendered story’s warm characterizations, gentle humor and spiritual undertones make it an affecting portrait of a wounded people that should find responsive audiences on cable after a modest theatrical run.
Eyre and screenwriter Jennifer D. Lyne, who adapted the book by Lakota poet-novelist Adrian C. Louis, use docu-style reporting to describe the story’s setting, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the poorest county in the U.S. Scarred by the tragic legacy of the Wounded Knee massacre, the area is rife with unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence, and its inhabitants have a life expectancy 50% lower than the rest of America.
Brothers Rudy (Eric Schweig) and Mogie (Graham Greene) grew up in a destructive family environment and now have gravitated toward opposite ends of the social spectrum. Rudy serves on the local police force while embittered Vietnam vet Mogie’s days evaporate in a boozy haze, causing embarrassment to his brother and rendering Mogie incapable of being a father to Herbie (Noah Watts), the teenage son he clearly loves.
Pained by the daily frustrations of his job of busting up drunken brawls and domestic disputes and by his people’s loss of dignity and spirituality, Rudy leads a double life as a masked vigilante. He beats up local lowlife and torches a liquor store in the tiny Nebraska border town that does a roaring trade each month when welfare checks arrive, selling booze to Indians from the “dry” reservation. But his actions take a personal toll when Mogie is caught in a blaze and badly burned, the resulting medical examination revealing him to be in the terminal stages of liver disease.
Rudy’s attempts to repair their damaged relationship culminate in a final symbolic gesture to honor his brother’s spirit that stands as a testament to their bond.
Eyre’s storytelling skills are simple, direct and generally effective, depicting with sensitivity the complex, often hostile relationship between the two brothers. But while it avoids strident preaching, the film’s historical and socio-cultural agendas are poorly integrated with its dramatic aims. The key character of Rudy is unsatisfyingly drawn, his vigilante actions given inadequate grounding and his relationship with a reservation woman (Michelle Thrush) abandoned after being shakily introduced.
Where the film is most successful is in Greene’s sympathetic portrayal of a man who in many ways embodies the sense of a crippled community, aware of but growing further away from its noble past toward a future of despair. One scene in which Mogie drunkenly stumbles around his shack while Herbie looks on has a wrenching impact. Greene’s subtle balance of humor, righteous indignation and pathetic, self-destructive impulses gives the compassionately observed story much of its heart.
Mogie - Graham Greene
Verdell - Gary Farmer
Herbie - Noah Watts
Aunt Helen - Lois Red Elk
Stella - Michelle Thrush
Teen Mogie - Nathaniel Arcand
Teen Rudy - Chaske Spencer