Winter in the Blood turns out to be the wrong kind of heartbreaker. Here’s a film so rich with strong scenes, natural beauty, fascinating faces, and heaps of bristling dialogue that you’ll buy a moment like this: Rounding up cattle on one of those elevated Montana plains that seems to scrape up against the bottom of heaven, a Native American kid says to his pal, “Stop lollygagging, numb nuts.” Everything is so shrewdly framed, lit, and performed that, sure, lollygagging sounds natural, even from a child.
Problem is, that moment, like many of the jewels in Winter in the Blood, comes as a haphazard flashback, a jagged burst of memory that interrupts — but doesn’t especially inform — the film’s tall-tale present.
Jumpy as a newborn colt, the movie (directed by Alex and Andrew Smith) is forever flashing back, both to remembered moments and possible memories of what might have happened when the Native American Everyhero Virgil First Raise (a sturdy Chaske Spencer) was blackout drunk. Sometimes, the flashbacks that might not be flashbacks bottom out into their own flashbacks, a trick that can work but here proves an annoyance. Every time a story thread seems to be getting somewhere, Winter in the Blood vaults to something else, with little regard for the tale’s rhythms — the movie doesn’t feel like a puzzle to solve; it’s a puzzle to assemble.
There’s still much to admire in it: On a half-assed quest to find the wife (Julia Jones, fetchingly mysterious in a Louise Brooks bob) who stole his gun, one morning Virgil comes to, lying beneath a glass coffee table. We see him from above, through the glass, face framed by copper tumblers holding stubbed-out cigarettes. He’s pretty stubbed out himself, enough that it’s not cryptic at all when a woman later tells him, “You look like you’ve seen taller grass.” What’s tougher to grasp is why his encounter with her — at first comic and tender, in the mode of the rest of the film — suddenly turns abusive. Or what we’re supposed to make of Virgil, just after he has committed an act of sexual violence, wandering the grasslands and musing in voice-over, “Sometimes you have to lean into the wind to stand straight.”
This footage could possibly be shaped into a strong, strange narrative. The Smith brothers ace scenes of family life among Native American ranchers, and they’re almost as comfortable with a simmering comic surrealism. David Morse turns up as some dreamlike criminal dandy with Teddy Roosevelt’s mustache and glasses. At a diner, he orders thusly: “I’ll have a coffee, tawny, and a cream puff, puffy”; enlisting Virgil in a border-crossing scheme he declares, “Never underestimate a Mountie — I learned that the hard way.”
This guy’s worthy of Twin Peaks — but soon he has Virgil involved in a chase scene with a teddy bear and a pipe fight with some gangsters. That sets Virgil off to thinking about smashing bottles as a kid. The good news is that the novel by James Welch offers some clarity about how all these interesting elements are related.