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1 review, 8 user ratings

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by Brian McKay

"Blood is thicker than oil-based paint"
4 stars

The second feature film by director Chris Eyre (SMOKE SIGNALS) begins with an almost documentarian approach, with news footage and a narrative voice-over describing the nearly third-world conditions that exist on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Located practically in the shadow of Mount Rushmore, it also resides near the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. But while a documentary on this subject would have been fascinating, the dramatic film that these opening scenes segue into is no less gripping.

Primarily the tale of two brothers who grew up and still live on Pine Ridge, Skins focuses on Rudy Yellow Lodge (Eric Schweig), who is a Pine Ridge Police Officer, and his older brother Mogie (Graham Greene), a Vietnam vet and hardcore alcoholic. In addition to dealing with drunken brawls and brutal incidents of domestic violence, Rudy spends a good portion of his time taking care of Mogie’s messes. Although the kid brother, Rudy is the grown-up, while jokester Mogie still acts like a rowdy teenager and is always quick with a funny but caustic remark. Despite his efforts to help Mogie out and include him in his life, when Mogie embarrasses him in front of his fellow officers at a police picnic, the two have a bit of a falling out. However, Rudy also runs into an old flame, Stella (Michelle Thrush), who is married-but-separated (apparently the latest round in a constant cycle) and invites Rudy over for the inevitable rekindling.

When a young man from the reservation is found murdered at an abandoned house, Rudy gives chase to one of the killers, only to fall and hit his head on a rock. He seems to experience either a vision or delusion, depending on one’s interpretation – but whatever you want to call it, the result is that Rudy begins to act outside the bounds of his normal law-enforcing behavior. When he finds two young men he thinks are responsible for the murder, he follows them and listens in on their campfire conversation, where he hears them talking about the crime. Rather than take them in, however, he finds himself covering his face with nylons and grabbing a baseball bat from the trunk. When the teenagers later drag themselves to the hospital with broken kneecaps and confess their crime to him (having no idea that he’s the guy who just gave them a royal beat down), Rudy begins to wonder if he can accomplish more outside the law than within it.

However, when he begins to take more impulsive actions that he think will help his people in the long run, he ends up reaping devastating personal consequences for both he and his brother. Characteristically, however, when he admits to Mogie that “I’m a vigilante”, his brother merely chuckles and asks, “What, like Rambo?” While Rudy struggles with his conscious, Mogie is confronted with his own mortality and the realization that he has let down his son, Herbie (Noah Watts), even though the young man loves him unconditionally.

Like the preceding Smoke Signals, Skins is a rich and engrossing look at modern Native American reservation life that makes great strides in dispelling ignorant stereotypes while also presenting the world with the cold facts about a proud culture plagued by unemployment and alcoholism. Like Smoke Signals, the film is also imbued with strong themes of familial ties and spirituality that are powerful and moving without stooping to base melodrama. Comments from detractors have criticized the film for its “heavy-handedness” and “obvious Native-American Agenda”. Regarding the former - on the contrary, the themes are presented in a straightforward manner that feels neither forced nor contrived. As for the “agenda” comments, all I can say is – well, no shit! It’s a film that has a Native American director, cast, and crew, and which is based on a novel by a Native American. What the fuck were you expecting, Sweet Home Alabama? If there are any minor quibbles to be found with the film, one could be that many of the smaller supporting performances are pretty leaden. However, since most of the players were recruited from the Pine Ridge community, and are not professional actors, this is pretty easy to overlook. Another problem, however, is that sub-plots are introduced and then subsequently brushed aside, such as the romance between Rudy and Stella. After a few initial scenes, Stella is never seen again and only mentioned in passing once. In addition, the belief system and cultural mythos that drive Rudy to go vigilante are touched upon rather lightly, and a deeper exploration of these themes is merited.

However, Most of the main actors are solid, especially the always-dependable Greene and a standout performance from Schweig. Also, Elaine Miles appears in a brief role that is such a 180 from her Marilyn character on Northern Exposure that it’s a small joy to behold. The result is a film with strong characters that one can readily identify with, and a wide range powerful highs and lows.

In the “making of” feature, director Eyre comments that although he has been offered the opportunity to do more Hollywood mainstream films, he feels compelled to continue working on small independent projects like this one that expose the world to the modern Native American condition. As long as his work remains as consistently good as it has been so far, the world should feel compelled to keep watching.

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originally posted: 05/24/03 05:48:06
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User Comments

12/21/08 novatrek Beauty is not just about the hair and face, but also the nails and other parts of the body. 5 stars
3/17/05 carmmm27 excellent work by director and cast 5 stars
11/17/04 Alexis Adams awesome 5 stars
10/19/04 kenneth launer very good film 4 stars
12/29/03 Debby Melton You have to be NDN to understand and appreciate this film 5 stars
11/02/03 Helen Carol Absorbing, thought-provoking, and definitely not a waste of time like so many current films 4 stars
10/12/03 r papp The human condition often moves me to tears. "Skins" was no exception. 5 stars
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  27-Sep-2002 (R)



Directed by
  Chris Eyre

Written by
  Jennifer Lyne

  Graham Greene
  Eric Schweig
  Nathaniel Arcand
  Michelle Thrush

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