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Skinwalkers (2002)
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by Jay Seaver

"As much about living on the rez as being a good mystery."
3 stars

As I've mentioned before, where mystery franchises was once dependable workhorses for studios, they've mostly been banished to TV in recent decades. Even there, PBS has scaled Mystery! back from a weekly Thursday-night series to a late summer fill-in for Masterpiece Theater. The upside is that WGBH has also started adapting American mysteries along with their English counterparts, so far producing one new adaptation of Tony Hillerman's novels per year. Skinwalkers, is a solid first entry, although it still has room for improvement.

The story is solid enough - when a local medicine man is murdered within the confines of a Navajo reservation, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn (Wes Studi) is assigned to investigate, with uniformed officer Jim Chee (Adam Beach) assisting. The murder weapon is an arrowhead made out of human bone, something associated with Skinwalkers. Leaphorn immediately dismisses evil shapeshifters as fairy tales, but it's interesting pathology. When the attempt to consult with another medicine man on the subject turns up another dead body, the mystery deepens.

Though the murder mystery is often looked upon as a somewhat limited genre - there are thousands of individual tales to be told, but a perception that they are basically variations on a theme - there are at least three distinct areas of focus. There is the Agatha Christie-style puzzle mystery, perhaps best experienced as short stories, where the reader is encouraged to test their wits against those of the detective. There is the procedural, which currently rules network television (and cable - my last roommate would happily watch four hours of true crime every night) in the form of Law & Order, CSI, and the like. And then there's a third, more mainstream type, where the crime mainly provides structure for an exploration of characters and issues.

Skinwalkers is clearly the third type, as concerned with what it means to be an Indian in the twenty-first century as it is with detailing the hunt for a murderer. You can see that in the contrast between the leads: In a switch from convention, the younger Chee embraces Navajo culture, training as a medicine man when not on duty with the Navajo Nation Police Department, while Leaphorn is a veteran Phoenix detective who left the city for his wife and doesn't feel much connection to the land and way of life. This conflict between traditional and western ways of life is a recurring theme, as when Chee and a doctor at a local hospital (Michael Grayeyes) discuss how to treat an injury.

Though this sort of thing makes for strong characters and gives the viewer more to chew on than just who done it, there is also a risk that the movie will lose its focus. There are digressions that don't really contribute much to the mystery plot, even as red herrings. While the discussion of Navajo versus American jurisdiction is interesting, and the look at how common unemployment and alcohol abuse is affecting the next generation of children growing up on the reservation is something worth bringing to the rest of America's attention, someone mainly interested in who killed the medicine men may find such things extraneous. Indeed, one lengthy set-piece seems like a drawn-out way to introduce a potential love interest (in future installments) for Chee, public defender Janet Pete (Alex Rice).

There is some decent talent attached to this picture, perhaps more than expected of a movie made for American broadcast television (even PBS). Robert Redford serves as an executive producer (his son writes the screenplay). Director Chris Eyre's debut feature, Smoke Signals, got a fair amount of buzz when Miramax released it, and his follow-up, Skins, did well enough on the festival circuit to get a limited release. He's not yet a Native American Spike Lee in terms of having the pure talent to command immediate attention even when not making films tied to his ethnic background, but he does well by his material. This is a pretty good-looking film produced on what must have been a pretty tight budget.

The cast is a bit of a mixed bag. Studi is rock-solid, as might be expected from an old pro. Beach doesn't quite measure up to Studi, seeming a little over-eager, too determined to come across as friendly and/or nice. Most of the rest of the cast is adequate, although I found myself wondering just how deep the casting pool of Native American actors is afterward. Though there aren't many bad performances, just about every cast member comes from a different nation. I'm all for casting the person who will give you the best performance even if it means fudging ethnicity, but others may differ. It would be a bigger deal if these people being a tight-knit ethnic community was a bigger plot point.

It's a good start. I look forward to more adaptations of the Chee/Leaphorn books, hoping that Beach's performance improves or grows on me.

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originally posted: 01/08/05 13:18:54
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User Comments

7/24/10 A Hillerman Fanatic Read the book instead! 3 stars
11/21/08 Shaun Wallner Scary Film! 5 stars
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  DVD: 26-Nov-2002



Directed by
  Chris Eyre

Written by
  James Redford

  Harrison Lowe
  James Dalgam
  Adam Beach
  Saginaw Grant
  Nicholas Bartolo
  Jon Proudstar

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