Thunderheart is one of those films that I saw when I was very young and have kept going back to watch over the years. With each new viewing through my life, I would pick up certain things or understand more than I did on the previous viewing. And, I can honestly say that after watching this again it still holds up.
As I stated in a previous post, part of what I want to do here is to tweak peoples interest so that they go back and watch the film. For me, I think it always better to go into a film not knowing too much about the story. This leaves us in the hands of the filmmakers and can make for a more enjoyable experience.
For that reason, I’m not going to go into the nuts and bolts of the story, instead, I'll just give a breakdown of the elements that I feel make this film worth-another-watch.
Below is a quick snippet summary. If you want to know more just go to IMBD.
By the book, FBI agent Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer) is assigned to investigate a murder of a tribal member named Leo Fast Elk, on run-down Native American Reservation in the Badlands of South Dakota. He’s chosen because he’s half Sioux Indian, a part of his life that Levoi has chosen to forget. He’s sent to work for another FBI Investigator named, Frank Coutelle (Sam Shepard).
But once Levoi arrives he sees that things on the reservation aren’t quite cherry pie. The land is being disputed by a Native militia group known as ‘Arm’ who are ones being blamed for the murder of Leo. So, Levoi begins to have visions of his past, which really bums him out and messes with his head; then he teams up with a local Reservation Detective known a Walter Crow Horse (Graham Green). And the two begin to kick it to the white man big time.
See IMBD for better summary below
Below is a short analysis video we did for the film...enjoy!
This film is written by John Fusco and Directed by Michael Apted. Based on the real-life events on the Oglala Reservation. These events at Oglala were previously made into a documentary called ‘Incident at Oglala’ which was also Directed by Apted. It really shows that Apted has immersed himself in this world. This is a side of America that we don’t usually see. He shows us the majestic images of the South Dakota Terrain, contrasted with the degradation and squalor of the Native people living within it.
"Third World, smack right dab, in the middle of America. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it"?
Det. Frank Coutelle.
Apted and Fusco never let the story become too political. They find the perfect blend of an engaging murder mystery and well-defined characters mixed in a world that asks questions of the audience, without forcing its message down our throats.
All the characters feel like they belong to the world of the story. Every character is here for a reason, and Apted has done a great job relating to the underlying themes or ideas that are running through the story. Even John Trudell’s character, Jimmy Looks Twice, who has only two or three pivotal scenes but manages to deliver the films driving message.
“We choose the right to be who we are. We know the difference between the reality of freedom and the illusion of freedom. There is a way to live with the earth and a way not to live with the earth. We choose the way of earth. It's about power”
Jimmy Looks Twice
At the centre of this story is Det. Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer), a man who has tried to hide from his Indian heritage, not wanting to face the problems in his past. His character portrays the strongest reference to how America itself has faced its history, choosing instead to hide from it.
Add to this the chemistry between Walter Crow Horse (Graham Greene) and Det. Levoi is one of the best aspects of this movie. Both actors were coming off strong performances – Greene ‘Dances with Wolves’ and Val Kilmer ‘The Doors’. The relationship that builds between both characters, and the infused comedic elements in their scenes, really stops this film from just being another political who don it.
Thunderheart gives us an engaging story with strong action sequences, mixed with a strong political backdrop. And because of this, the story is incredibly engaging and always asks questions of the audience.
One of the central question it asks of us is, in an ever-changing world, how do we address the injustices of the past, while trying to protect those more vulnerable within society. Which is it more important to live by, the law of the land; a land which was unjustly taken from previous generations, and a law which was then imposed on them. Or the soul of that land, something that we all must live by, the laws of which are bound in nature and are to be respected rather than enforced.
Above all, this is a really enjoyable film, with great performances and some excellent action sequences that never get overused. For a movie with a two-hour run-time, it never loses its pace. Sure, there are some small plot holes. One of the reasons I haven’t mention anything about Sam Shepard is that, for me, the character is never really fleshed out compared to the rest of the cast. But, even still Sheperd puts in a really solid performance, as always.
But, other than that, this movie is definitely worth-another-watch.
As I was drafting this, I heard the news that Sam Sheperd past away. In my opinion, he was one of the most underrated actors. He had an incredible career, and it saddens me that I won't see him in anything new. But, he left us with a great back catalogue of performances - Do yourselves a favour and watch 'Mud'. RIP