After a night of drinking Virgil First Raise wakes up in a ditch. Groggy and disoriented he has a vision of his father who was found dead, frozen in a ditch after a night of drinking. When he finally returns home he is told by his mother that not only has his wife left but she also took his gun and his electric razor with her. Despite his family’s objections he decides to at the very least get his rifle back. Thus begins Virgil’s unusual journey of self-discovery. A journey that takes many twists and turns that will no doubt puzzle, bore and/or invigorate most viewers.
Winter in the Blood is based on the 1974 novel written by James Welch. Based on the film it is very likely that the novel is a fairly dense narrative that was difficult to translate to the silver screen. The film’s directors and writers’, Alex and Andrew J. Smith along with co-writer Ken White, adaptation is a challenging one to watch. It has a meandering pace that may cause one to tune out but it is rewarding if you are able to stay with it. There are passages that appear to have come straight out of a dime-store pulp novel that may seem irrelevant to the plot but they actually speak volumes to Virgil’s need to break out. The film has its funny moments, dramatic moments, strange moments and philosophical ones, too.
The film features a strong performance from lead actor Chaske Spencer. His portrayal of Virgil is very nuanced and layered. You can see the depth in his eyes, the weariness in his walk and as each layer is peeled back you find something new. He’s tender with his grandmother, respectful with his elders and rough and tumble with hooligans. David Morse is amusing as Airplane Man, the guy straight out of a pulp novel. It is never made clear if this is in Virgil’s head or not but Morse brings the character to life. The Smiths fill out most of the supporting roles with Native American actors. Saginaw Grant stands out as the blind old hermit Virgil comes to visit from time-to-time. Gary Farmer is suitably amusing as Lame Bull. Julia Jones, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson and Lily Gladstone are all good as the women in Virgil’s complex life.
Cinematographer Paula Huidobro does a fine job of capturing the look of Montana. The Smiths have made a fairly complex character study of a Native American trying to find purpose. The film can be at times dull and peculiar and it does move at a slow deliberate pace but in the end it is a rather satisfying experience. Thanks in part to Spencer’s performance you do want to see Virgil’s journey come to its conclusion, good or bad, real or not, you want to see how things turn out. It’s worth a look if you have the time and patience.