Based on the novel by James Welch, Winter in the Blood follows Virgil (Chaske Spencer), an alcoholic miscreant with a frowned-upon mixed-race heritage whose struggles of assimilation into both white and Native American society inform his debaucherous behavior. Twin directors Andrew and Alex Smith skillfully depict an America that, through Virgil’s eyes, is both familiar yet uncomfortably alien, a projection of the social limbo he occupies. This also informs the film’s dominating subjectivity, where every sound or touch in this sensory and dreamlike world flashes back to past memories or visions. But while Winter in the Blood’s offbeat aesthetic occasionally offers visually and editorially striking sequences, it largely just flaunts for appeal, suffocating character and thematic ambition underneath its flashiness.
The filmmakers reveal a compelling struggle between Virgil’s centuries-old Native American culture and the appropriation of the west by white settlers in order to create a romanticized image of a “lawless” land: As flashbacks detail, Virgil, instead of embracing his own heritage, wants to grow up to become a gunslinging cowboy (a heroic figure within white literature and entertainment, but also representative of the kind of torment Virgil’s people were subjected to), and his childhood days are spent playing Cowboys and Indians with his brother, with the former usually coming out on top. In the end, there’s more complexity to this role-playing than there is to the alcoholism that comes to grip Virgil as an adult.
Winter in the Blood can be admired for its disarmingly gonzo sense of humor and a fully committed David Morse, here affecting an odd pseudo-Irish accent to portray a bombastic con man. But the climactic and darkly humorous effort by a funeral-goer to cram a coffin into a small grave can’t distract from the moment immediately following, which represents the pinnacle of the Smith brothers’ tendency to dramatize Virgil’s development as a man through characters espousing ancestral triumphs. Virgil’s ultimate so-called success is only through familial association and never through his own individual accomplishments, something that could be taken as irony if the filmmakers didn’t elevate the purposefully unpleasant Virgil to such a heroic level as he delivers a philosophical monologue with a spirit-cleansing rainfall approaching.