A few years ago director Chris Eyre, working from a Sherman Alexie script, made the beautiful and resonant film "Smoke Signals," about two young men from the Coeur d'Alene Indian reservation in north Idaho who go on a journey to find and reconnect with the father who abandoned one of them. Richly textured, witty and sad and profound, the film seemed a miracle at a time when Native Americans had yet to make a feature film about themselves. Since then Alexie has made his own film, "The Business of Fancydancing," and now Eyre has directed "Skins."
"Skins" was written by Jennifer D. Lyne, from a novel by Adrian C. Louis. It is set on the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux reservation in southern South Dakota, just two miles from the Nebraska border, where Indians can buy liquor at any time, even though alcohol is banned on the reservation. It's the story of two brothers, Mogie and Rudy, perhaps in their forties. Rudy is a tribal policeman and Mogie, his older brother and childhood protector, is an alcoholic who has lost everything except the ability to drink.
Rudy is consumed with the reservation's problems: poverty - it is the poorest county in the United States - alcohol, unemployment, suicide, and a life span many years shorter than the rest of the nation. He tries to take care of Mogie, to help with Mogie's teenage son, and to do his police work. But when two reservation kids murder another one, Rudy becomes a vigilante to wreak justice of his own, which leads later to his being responsible for a grave injury to his brother.
Threaded through the film are references to the irony of the figures carved on nearby Mt. Rushmore - white American presidents - and Mogie's fantasy of blowing the nose off of George Washington. Ultimately, an even more powerful image is created on the statue's face.
"Skins" is a much simpler story than "Smoke Signals," and the production shows the effects of an impossibly low budget and many cut corners in shooting and editing. Nonetheless, it has a great power that we feel in almost every frame. Graham Greene, who plays Mogie, gives an extraordinary portrait of a man in excruciating pain, bot psychic and physical, who still has powerful insights into himself, his brother, and the world. If the Motion Picture Academy could see this film, perhaps there might be an Oscar nomination for his performance. Eric Schweig, as Rudy, is less compelling, more one-note in his performance, even though his character is the driving force in the film.
Eyre has shot "Skins" as though it were a documentary, simply setting his camera up and being in place to record the interchanges in each scene. It is a good choice, because the material is straightforward and the plot is lifelike. There are some extraordinary moments, including a healing ceremony conducted to try and free Rudy of his consuming passion for taking it all on his own shoulders. And the irony of Mogie's wisdom coming out of this slobbering ghost of a man is almost too powerful to watch. But at the end of the film there is at least the beginning of a healing and a redemption. A very powerful experience for those who will give themselves to it.