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With: Eric Schweig, Graham Greene, Gary Farmer, Noah Watts, Lois Red Elk, Michelle Thrush, Nathaniel Arcand, Chaske Spencer, Joseph American Horse, Wilda Asimont, Dave Bald Eagle, Bruce Bennett, Robert A. Bennett, Gil Birmingham
Written by: Jennifer D. Lyne, based on a novel by Adrian C. Louis
Directed by: Chris Eyre
MPAA Rating: R for language and violence
Running Time: 84
Date: 01/14/2002

Skins (2002)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Not-so original 'Skins'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Welcome to the class of Smoke Signals.

Just a few weeks ago, Smoke Signals writer Sherman Alexie made his directorial debut with the terrific The Business of Fancydancing. Now Smoke Signals director Chris Eyre brings us his follow-up film, Skins, which opens today at the Embarcadero Cinema. Released in 1998, Smoke Signals purported to be the first American Indian film (or at least the first one released in mainstream theaters). It was a breezy, delightful film with strong, touching characters and a love of storytelling. Above all, it managed to fill us in on reservation life without preaching.

Now, seeing its writer and director on separate projects, I don't mind hypothesizing that the best part of Smoke Signals came from Alexie. While Eyre's new film has its moments, it's too rooted in the idea of making a statement -- and too concerned over whether we'll get it -- to finish as a success. Local actor Eric Schweig (wonderful in Big Eden) stars as Rudy, a Pine Ridge Indian reservation police chief in South Dakota forever breaking up brawls between drunken Indians. Rudy carries in his face and body a constant, permanent rage, as if hornets were swimming around in his bloodstream.

During a routine call, he witnesses two punks escaping the scene of a murder. But when the FBI lackadaisically refuses do anything about it, he dresses up in blackface and clubs the criminals with a baseball bat, vigilante-style. Meanwhile, Rudy has to deal with his drunken brother Mogie (Graham Greene), a war veteran who survived a horrible childhood under his own drunken father. Mogie has a good son who's pointed at the straight and narrow, and Rudy tries to give him a leg up whenever needed.

The movie's big conflict comes when Rudy goes out for his next masked vigilante stint, firebombing a liquor store as a statement against drunken Indians. Unfortunately, he doesn't realize that Mogie is trying to break into the store at the same time. His brother gets caught in the hungry flames. The movie starts out well enough with Greene hamming it up, palling around drunk with his buddy Vernell Weasel Tail (Gary Farmer, from Dead Man). But when things turn serious and Greene begins spending more and more time in bed or collapsed on the couch, the movie becomes talky and preachy, making grand statements without any of the passion for storytelling that Smoke Signals had.

Worse, Weasel Tail buys the farm halfway through the film, senselessly stepping in a bear trap while plastered out of his gourd. Hence, we're deprived of Farmer's warm, glorious presence right when the movie needs it most. Schweig has the difficult task of hanging onto all that anger and still presenting a character that we want to spend time with -- it's his story after all -- and he pulls it off. Sometimes his anger seems out of place, out of proportion, but for the most part we can see that this is a guy who has it rough and doesn't have much to look forward to besides the next drunken brawl.

I'd be happier if Eyre could have taken more of a cue from Alexie and shown some pleasure in the art of unfolding a story. Skins feels more like an obligation.

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