Like the two previous feature-length adaptations of Tony Hillerman’s Native American whodunits exec-produced by Robert Redford for PBS’s “Mystery” series, “A Thief of Time” concentrates more on the cultural identity of the contrasting pair of Navajo policemen-sleuths than on the identity of the killer du jour. Directed by Chris Eyre (“Smoke Signals,” “Skins”), as was skein’s first episode “Skinwalkers,” pic reprises many themes and characters but uncharacteristically emphasizes women, who effortlessly steal the show and skew action away from predictable paths. Character-driven pic, skedded to air in the spring, could easily stand solo overseas in small- and occasional bigscreen venues.
A female anthropologist, who may or may not have been dealing in stolen pots from a civilization that pre-dates today’s surviving Indian tribes, comes up missing. Called to investigate are young, earnest Tribal Police Officer Jim Chee (Adam Beach), an apprentice medicine man who follows the old ways, and world-weary Lt. Joe Leaphorn (Wes Studi), who has no truck with tradition.
While Chee copes with fresh dead bodies in ancient burial grounds, Leaphorn deals with the white-eyes, fending off the advances of a gorgeous redheaded anthropologist (Dawn Lewis), colleague of the missing woman. She is mischievously abetted by a middle-aged female park ranger with an odd sense of humor.
The rich, largely Native American cast of characters also includes Graham Greene (making a return appearance from the series’ second installment, “Coyote Waits”) as Slick Nikai, a flashy pusher of pots and purveyor of Jesus, and Tantoo Cardinal as the housekeeper/mistress of Mormon ex-legislator Harrison Houk (Peter Fonda).
Color-leached flashbacks establish that younger cop Leaphorn was summoned after Houk’s family was tragically wiped out by his insane son, and that Leaphorn, for reasons even murkier than the flashbacks, called off the manhunt and allowed the kid to escape after Houk begged him not to kill his son, who was all he had left.
Pic’s scripted attempts at mysticism, including mad, inexplicable frog ceremonies, the ghost of a woman and child at a sacred funeral site, and the weird male bonding between Leaphorn and Houk, work neither as tempting red herrings nor as intimations of spirituality. Helmer Eyre does not seem to invest much importance in these scenes (though he gets a lot of mileage from Fonda’s gimpy, cane-aided walk).
On the other hand, the relationship between Leaphorn and his wife Emma (Sheila Tousey), whose battle with cancer has brought them back to the reservation, is a marvel of nuance and tone. Tousey brings an earthy certitude to a role that grounds the otherwise abstract, vaguely Oedipal angst of the males.
Tech credits are pro.