Bristling with anger, humor and a deep sadness, Chris Eyre’s second feature “Skins” is a torrent of moods, feelings and scorched fury.
In examining a struggle of acceptance and reconciliation between two brothers, the film acknowledges a culture whose scarred past and uncertain future remain inchoate and incomplete.
“Smoke Signals,” Eyre’s lyrical and funny debut, had a more mature and accomplished voice than this film, thanks to the sharp observations and graceful characterizations of writer Sherman Alexie.
“Skins” offers a considerable technical advance on the first film, but is not as stable and often struggles to find an emotional rhythm.
The transitions are a bit jerky, and the characters move in and out of the frame too abruptly for the story to ever achieve its full expression. The story, which was adapted from Adrian C. Louis’ novel of the same name by screenwriter Jennifer D. Lyne, works best as impressionism, bracketing its portrait of squalor and desperation against a community that prides itself on its heritage.
It begins with a burst of documentary naturalism; via a staggering collection of video images, we witness the heartwrenching struggles of the Oglala Sioux as they try to maintain a semblance of decency on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The poorest county in the U.S., Pine Ridge is riddled with 75% unemployment and ridiculously high levels of domestic abuse.
The film centers on the contentious and emotionally complicated relationship of two haunted brothers caught at radically opposite ends of the responsibility spectrum.
Mogie (Graham Greene), a decorated Vietnam veteran, is a bitter, defeated drunk who spends much of his day in an incoherent haze.
His younger brother Rudy (Eric Schweig) is a criminal investigator with the local police department. Rudy also leads a shadow life as a vigilante with his own brand of justice; he beats up two murderous local punks and burns down the white-owned liquor store in an effort to wipe out the community’s rampant alcohol abuse.
Rudy’s story has sharp echoes of Jim Thompson’s novel “Pop. 1280,” in which a socially marginal sheriff violently wipes out the people who have caused him shame and embarrassment.
In its best moments, “Skins” dramatizes the internal struggle wrought by assimilation. The presence of the past inflects and invades the present in this film, rendering a community crippled by forces beyond its control or authority.
The complicated interaction of the two brothers is Eyre’s greatest achievement; rage, embarrassment, grief and finally, a moving and unshakable bond are all conveyed with skill.
Violence and family grief are present as well, passed on through generations. In a sharply-rendered flashback, we see the brothers as high school football stars whose game is interrupted by the violent outbursts of their father. (“The past isn’t past,” as Faulkner says. “It isn’t even dead.”). Mogie remains trapped by the past, but Rudy is determined to recast it.
“Skins” operates effectively within its moods and tones and has ironic and furious humor, but the storytelling remains awkward and unfocused.
The narrative is jerky and incomplete — one apparently major character, a troubled woman with an attraction to Rudy, appears early on and then disappears completely. And the ramifications of Rudy’s alternate identity are never fully explored, leaving the movie somewhat adrift.
The film is loaded with incident and detail, some of it grimly funny (the recurring images of Rudy’s ungainliness and physical awkwardness, a sorrowful and violently unsettling image of a man caught in a bear trap).
It animates a culture cut-off from the world that is defined almost entirely by ritual and its tenuous connections to the past.
There is also an anger due in part to a government policy of neglect and abuse. But in the end, Rudy’s vigilante impulses and Mogie’s social outrage merge and find their expression in one spectacular act of protest art.
It is a fitting conclusion to a movie caught on the precipice of anger and grief, outrage and hurt. The point may be didactic, but the effect is unmistakable.
Note: Perhaps noteworthy: “Skins” was the only premiere to have received a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival.
Author: Patrick Z. McGavin