Sunday, July 4, 2010


Today I saw the acclaimed 1992 movie Thunderheart. I already liked Val Kilmer from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and wanted to see his earlier work. The subject matter also attracted me, after seeing We Shall Remain and other films about Native Americans last year. Though fictional, the film is inspired by real events in South Dakota in the 1970s, and Wikipedia points to the story of Leonard Peltier in particular. I think one of the FBI agents even obliquely refers to it when mentioning two other agents who had been killed.

The movie takes place in the 1970s, given the look of all the cars, and possibly 1978, given the use of Bruce Springsteen's "Badlands" early in the film. It's practically an omen, given that soon after hearing that song on the radio, Val Kilmer's character is sent to the Badlands, South Dakota. Kilmer plays FBI agent Ray Levoi, who is sent mainly because he is one-quarter Sioux Indian, and they need someone to investigate a murder on the reservation. The murder of Leo Fast Elk is thought to be related to the civil unrest between the ARM Indians and the pro-government Indians. (ARM is the Aboriginal Rights Movement, a fictionalization of the American Indian Movement involved in the real 1970s incidents.)

The FBI keep painting the ARM members as hostile militants, and they blame Leo's murder on ARM leader Jimmy Looks Twice. Ray Levoi is paired with a senior agent named Frank Coutelle or Cooch, and at first Ray is quite uncomfortable with his Indian heritage. He claims that he never knew his half-Sioux father because "he died when I was a baby," but actually Ray's dad died when he was seven, and he has merely buried most of his memories of his alcoholic father. Ray bristles at being told that the reservation Indians are his own people, and he scoffs at their talk of medicine men and visions.

But as the murder investigation goes on, Ray starts to be realize that Jimmy Looks Twice is not the killer. In fact, the local Indian policeman Walter Crow Horse performs a crime scene analysis worthy of Sherlock Holmes. He looks at a footprint and reads the murderer's characteristics, and he also does a footprint reading on Ray too. Ray responds with "Fuck you." (Hee! Imagine if Watson had the nerve to say that to Holmes in SIGN regarding the pocketwatch!)

Even still, Ray investigates Walter's claim that Leo was killed by a river, then his body was moved in a car and dumped where it was found. At the same time, Frank keeps assigning Ray to stakeout the home of Grandpa Sam Reaches, an elder whom all the traditionalist Indians look to for spiritual wisdom. Grandpa Reaches tells an uncomfortable and probably accurate vision of young Ray rejecting his father at school. Ray begins to have visions not only of his alcoholic father, but also of the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. Grandpa Reaches tells Ray of his ancestor Thunderheart who died at Wounded Knee, and claims that the spirits brought Ray here for a reason.

Ray also develops a romantic interest in the school teacher Maggie Eagle Bear. Even though the FBI described her as an ARM leader who advocated extreme violence, Ray does his own independent research to learn that she actually advocated nonviolence and that she received an ivy-league degree before coming to the reservation to try to help her people. Maggie is suspicious and disdainful of Ray for being an FBI man, but they grow closer especially after a shootout where Ray helps defend her family and rushes her wounded son to a clinic.

Ray and Walter also learn to become allies, though Ray sometimes feels conflicted by his loyalty to Frank. But Ray realizes that the federal response to this murder seems to be overkill, and that the GOONs hired by Tribal President Jack Milton are the ones behaving threateningly and violently. (GOONs, or Guardians of the Oglala Nation, are far too aptly named, and the acronym is not just something made up by the movie.) Ray uncovers a conspiracy of corrupt officials and a shady land deal, all of which point to Leo's true killer.

The movie is a compelling drama and tragic mystery, with some action chases and shootouts. It's not completely depressing though, for there are charming moments of humor, like when Grandpa Reaches talks of Mr. Magoo and swindles some sunglasses from Ray. Through mystical experiences as well as interactions with the locals, Ray learns to accept his heritage and to no longer think of the FBI agents as his people. Not that it's really a white vs. Indian story. The pro-government GOONs and Jack Milton are all Indians as well, and as Frank meaningfully says, "It's hard to tell the good guys from the bad guys." The movie ends, appropriately, at the border of the reservation, right at the brink of returning to the mainstream United States.

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