“This film’s been germinating for 40 years since the book was published,” director Alex Smith told a packed house at the Roxy Theater in Missoula for Montana’s premiere of its very own “Winter in the Blood” film last Saturday. “Tonight, it blossoms.”
“Winter in the Blood” is based on the late Montana author James Welch’s 1974 novel of the same name. Welch, a Blackfeet and Gros Ventre author who won the American Book Award for his 1986 novel “Fool’s Crow,” was a friend of the Montana native and twin brother directors Alex and Andrew Smith while growing up.
Welch was the University of Montana’s head of the English department when their father and then stepfather taught at the school. The Smiths remained close to Welch throughout their lives until his death in 2003.
The “Winter in the Blood” book was an unflinching contemporary look at the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and Hi-Line area bordering Canada that Welch grew up in. And while the film script is also set in the same timeframe as the book, the Milk River Valley’s vast rural area of low rolling hills and prairies bordered by stout mountains is always described as “timeless” by those who have been there. Indeed, even the buildings themselves seem like one has stepped into a time machine.
Prior to filming, Alex had said he wanted to look at the area with “the same unblinking gaze Welch brought to the novel.” The Smiths were told by Welch he’d written it as a “travelogue” to describe where he was from. It began as poetic descriptions before evolving into a novel.
The Smiths, whose previous credits include the Montana-based 2002 indie film highlighting six-man football called “The Slaughter Rule” starring Ryan Gosling, were well aware that the scenery itself was an omnipresent character helping dictate the feelings and actions of the characters. They did extensive research of the area and places mentioned in the novel before filming.
As the narrator of “Winter in the Blood” described his growing detachment from those around him, Welch wrote, “The country had created a distance as deep as it was empty, and the people accepted and treated each other with distance.”
Portrayed with a fearless performance by Lakota actor Chaske Spencer (of “Twilight” fame as Sam Uley, leader of the so-called wolf pack), the story of “Winter in the Blood” is one of a broken man trying to put the pieces of his life together as he encounters interesting characters along the way who highlight the uniqueness of Montana’s people, scenery and way of life.
The narrator is never mentioned by name throughout the book to suggest that he hadn’t truly found himself yet, but in the film his name is Virgil First Raise. Playing the alcoholic Virgil, who struggled to find reasons to live – or even die – was complex, but Spencer was up to the challenge.
Spencer grew up in Montana in places that included the Northern Cheyenne and Fort Peck Indian reservations, and he had known characters just like Virgil before he left Poplar to follow his acting dreams in New York City.
“He has a broken spirit, and has had years and years of being beaten down physically and emotionally, and I like how the book and film starts right from where he hits bottom and focuses on a time in his life when he’s transitioning,” Spencer said. The first scene of the film has Virgil waking up rough in a ditch, and a vision of his father who’d died in the cold of exposure after drinking too much.
“He can go down one road and change his life, or he can go down the other road, which is certain death. I think Virgil is trying to find things in his life that will help him move forward, things that will help him decide to live. As an actor, I found that fascinating. It was sort of a cleansing for me the way I threw myself into the role.”
For the Smith brothers, one of the main themes was how Virgil lost his older brother violently in front him. His brother had always been the one to help him fight through adversity like their father’s death and growing up, and without him Virgil was lost.
Imagining the unthinkable scenario of losing their twin brother kept the Smiths focused on what Virgil was going through. Past scenes of Virgil and his brother Moses during their younger years were intertwined with the present storyline.
Similar to the film’s character Virgil, the Smiths could also relate to him since their own father died when they were 6.
“The book has been a touchstone for us for so long,” Alex said. “You should pursue the thing that haunts you, and this book has haunted us for a long time. We wanted to know why and so we took it on as a film. A core theme of the book is stay connected to the things you lose.”
The film does not shy away from alcohol abuse, and when asked how they’d receive potential criticism of portraying a negative stereotype of a “drunk Indian,” Spencer said apart from having grown up with guys like Virgil, he wanted to portray a “very human character” with flaws and all.
“Part of our challenge of this was not talking about a ‘drunk Indian,’ but why a person might drink,” Alex noted. “A person who has had no hope or guidance might turn to a way of numbing out, and in this case it was alcohol. But this movie isn’t about drinking or an alcoholic, but a person dealing with some serious trauma. He’s self-medicated, and it’s stopped working.”
Having grown up in that atmosphere, the mostly Native cast could relate wholeheartedly to Virgil as someone they’d known personally as a relative or close acquaintance.
Native Montanan and Blackfeet actor Lilly Gladstone talked about a scene where her character, Marlene, sees Virgil bloodied and down and out on the street. Rather than shy away, Marlene plops down next to him and speaks to him amiably without judgment.
“It’s a puzzle to a lot of people who just wouldn’t understand, so they’re like, ‘Why would she sit down and talk with him?’” Gladstone said. “But that’s just kind of the way it works. If you’ve had it rough and you’ve seen it rough, and you see another native in that position, you don’t just walk by him. You help them out, or sit with them, or shake their hand. But that’s one way the character Marlene made sense to me by relating to how I grew up.”
Along with a mostly Native American cast – a lot of whom were chosen locally – other veteran actors include Eddie Spears (“Dances with Wolves”); well-known character actor David Morse (“The Green Mile,” “The Hurt Locker”); Gary Farmer (“Pow Wow Highway,” “Smoke Signals”); and Richard Whitman. Actresses Dana Wheeler-Nicholson (“Friday Night Lights” TV series, “Tombstone”) and Julia Jones (“Twilight,” “ER” TV series) filled supporting roles.
Those not familiar with reservation life may be confused about how to react to this one. But for those wanting a story about real people in an overlooked place, l“Winter in the Blood” carries on the late Welch’s storytelling legacy with enough heart to warm anyone’s veins.
As The New York Times Book Review wrote about the novel, “Few books in any year speak so unanswerably, make their own local terms so thoroughly ours.”
A close friend of the Smiths was slated to be the production designer of the film, but he died before the film was made.
“Before he died, we went to visit him,” Alex said. “He pulled me aside and said, ‘Smitty, make one that lasts 99 years.’ And that’s what we’ve been trying to do with this thing.”