Gritty, inspiring and often grandly shot across some glorious landscapes, quasi-adventure/biopic “Snowblind” takes a long time finding the dramatic traction it needs to move beyond the picturesque, but when it does, it glides. Docu about 23-year-old blind musher Rachel Scdoris is a good fit for cabler Discovery Channel which is backing the film.
More people have climbed Mount Everest than have finished Alaska’s 1,850-mile Iditarod dog-sled race, helmer Vikram Jayanti tells us, and it becomes clear early on that the critical moment in the film occurred before the first frame was shot: the decision by the legally blind Scdoris to run the race at all.
As the film begins, Scdoris is prepping for her third Iditarod, equipped with her father Jerry’s sled-trained dogs, and the hope that she’ll beat her previous best time. With little chance to actually win the fabled competition, Scdoris constructs a race against herself.
Like a snowpacked trail, “Snowblind’s” progress is lumpy and bumpy: After a brief interlude in the scenic north, Jayanti heads south to Jerry Scdoris’ dog compound in the high desert of Oregon, where he trains his pointer mixes. It become something of a running gag that Joe Runyan, the onetime Iditarod winner and Scdoris family friend who will accompany Rachel on the trail (being blind, she’s allowed an escort), favors Alaskan Huskies. At every low point in Scdoris’ trek, Runyan is heard recommending they “get her the right dogs.” But Scdoris is as loyal to her father as her dogs are to her. And loyalty sometimes comes at a price.
Shooting largely from a helicopter (which at one point crashes spectacularly), and at stops along the race path, Jayanti also employs a “Rachel cam” — which is almost useless, given that his visually impaired subject seldom looks the way she’s going. It becomes a critical tool, however, when one dog becomes ill and apparently dies in Scdoris’ arms. For all the moments that might have slipped away, this one is captured in spectacular fashion.
What’s missing for a good part of “Snowblind” is human conflict, something to elevate the film beyond a record of athletic achievement and endurance, but Jerry Scdoris manages to come through in the pinch — failing to get Rachel’s replacement sleds to the right place at the right time. Hectored by Jayanti for his lackadaisical preparations, Scdoris bristles. “He managed to get himself up for a visit,” Jayanti quips. “Just not the sleds.” Mostly, Jaytanti is delicate about the Scdorises father-daughter relationship, which seems in a perpetually unsettled state of tension, affection and control.
Jayanti’s narration is fine, but the dialogue seems hastily written. Calling Alaska “the last frontier” is about as original as calling Billy Joel “the Piano Man.” During one crisis, he’s heard to say that as the doctors fight to save her dog, “Rachel fights to hold back tears.” Such doggerel is unworthy of a filmmaker whose work (“James Ellroy’s Feast of Death,” “Game Over: Kasparov and the Machine”) has been so sophisticated.
Production values are top-notch, especially the work of a crack team of cinematographers.