1 item from 1992
Only obvious big-time production values keep ''Thunderheart'' from looking like a resolutely independent feature from the late '60s. This thriller about murder, tribal chicanery and government misconduct on a South Dakota Indian reservation never makes any bones about where its pro-Indian heart lies and even throws in a New Age appreciation for Indian religion, to boot.
However, the politics never get in the way of the thrills --they aid them, in fact -- and the film boasts a cast of unsurpassed appeal. Toss in a feel-good ending and you have the makings of a sleeper.
Val Kilmer stars as Ray Levoi, a young FBI agent whose smattering of Indian blood gets him transferred to a high-pressure murder investigation being run by veteran hard-nosed agent Frank Coutelle (Sam Shepard). Out on the range they are aided by a heavily armed band of establishment Indians headed by the tribal chairman, Jack Milton (Fred Ward), who, together with Coutelle, seem in an awful hurry to pin the murder of a Milton ally on Jimmy Looks Twice (John Trudell), a member of a left-leaning traditionalist movement, ARM.
Levoi is willing to go along with the hunt, but comes under the influence of Walter Crow Horse (Graham Greene), a tribal policeman who believes that the case is far more complex -- and sinister -- than anyone believes. At the same time, Levoi also meets Maggie Eagle Bear (Sheila Tousey), an articulate school teacher and ARM member who fills him in on the Indian power structure, and Grandpa Sam Reaches (Chief Ted Thin Elk), who gives Levoi a crash course in Indian mysticism and awakens long-dormant feelings and visions within him.
These mystic aspects are treated as literally true, but John Fusco's script has a way of tying them into more realistic happenings -- especially at the cliff-hanging climax -- that should make them palatable to skeptical audiences.
Director Michael Apted gets full value from the overwhelming landscapes, though his fondness for expressive features extends to his cast, as well; a quick glance is enough to tell the good guys from the bad guys, so the ''surprise'' ending doesn't come as much of a surprise. Cinematographer Roger Deakins captures the full variation of desert light, from blinding midday to blinded night.
Kilmer is unafraid to play up the unattractive aspects of his ultimately sympathetic character, while Shepard adds a rich riff to his grim variations of strong, silent Westerners. However, Greene's dry wit and easy authority make for the film's most pleasurable performance, and the film's vitality ascends a notch whenever he is on screen. Ward also makes a striking contribution, particularly considering how brief his appearances are. Unknowns Tousey, Thin Elk and Trudell do better than hold their own.
A Tribeca/Waterhorse Production
Director Michael Apted
Writer John Fusco
Director of photography Roger Deakins, B.S.C.
Editor Ian Crafford
Production designer Dan Bishop
Music James Horner
Casting Lisa Clarkson
Ray Levoi Val Kilmer
Frank Coutelle Sam Shepard
Walter Crow Horse Graham Greene
Jack Milton Fred Ward
Maggie Eagle Bear Sheila Tousey
Grandpa Sam Reaches Chief Ted Thin Elk
Jimmy Looks Twice John Trudell
Running time -- 118 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
(c) The Hollywood Reporter
1 item from 1992
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