Austin Film Festival: Winter in the Blood review

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Andrew and Alex Smith’s adaptation of James Welch’s “Winter in the Blood” accurately represents the narrative chaos of the novel upon which it’s based, but that does not make for a solid film. Its protagonist, Virgil (Chaske Spencer, best known as the werewolf leader in the “Twilight” series), is a Native American in his thirties who drifts through life in a drunken stupor, trying to avoid his painful memories. These memories dominate the Smiths’ film, and the writers/directors do a good job of reflecting the muddled existence through which their protagonist moves. Virgil finds himself on a surreal quest to retrieve his dead father’s rifle, and often cannot distinguish between his current surroundings and his memories.

The blurred line between Virgil’s past and present is brilliantly rendered on screen; Spencer’s face nonchalantly acknowledges shifts in time and space as he is passed in the street by shades of his younger self. A man claims to have saved Virgil in a bar fight and recruits him for a secret mission involving a run to the Canadian border and he hardly bats an eye. 

The Smiths deftly situate their audience within the mind of a man ravaged by guilt, memory and alcoholism. This strength also proves to be the film’s biggest problem. The narrative pulls away into this stream of past and present so often that it doesn’t give its audience time to register the emotional heft of a line or moment. “Winter in the Blood” is at its most potent when it is also at its most placid. Moments like the deafening silence following a violent sexual encounter, the trembling fingers of an old man removing a braid, or the smiling, effortless tenderness of Virgil’s short-term companion Marlene (a brilliant Lily Gladstone) carry the most emotional heft because they stick defiantly in the present. Other scenes with this potential end up drowned out by the noise of these transitions.

Despite the confusion, Spencer serves as a powerful anchor throughout. His stoicism is expertly managed to show just the right amount of give. A slight quiver in Virgil’s carefully maintained mask says more than a lengthy flashback ever could. This skillful subtlety is matched by co-star Gladstone, who, in only a few short scenes, creates a character as damaged and haunting as Spencer’s. Saginaw Grant’s work as Yellow Calf, a hermit with ties to Virgil’s past, is a master class in minimalist intensity. With a few simple gestures, he hints at a lifetime of the same haze of memory and darkness that Virgil finds himself mired in.

The Smith brothers and co-writer Ken White have worked very hard to channel the degree to which remembrance rules the narrative structure of their source material, but this dedication to emulating the novel proves taxing on the film. Spencer’s performance centers “Winter in the Blood” in a way that reveals serious acting ability, but the film’s reliance on portraying the surrealist power of memory holds it back from the full impact it could have had.