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My comments may be a little late to the party, but this was the first
one I've seen adapting one of Tony Hillerman's Navajo mystery novels to
the screen. After seeing the movie and reading some of the comments, it
is evident there are too many reviewers getting caught up in the
location and tribal origin of the actors chosen, thus, obscuring the
fact that this is a decent, enjoyable, and satisfying movie. If it
compels a few people who haven't had the opportunity to pick up any of
Hillerman's work and start enjoying the unique mixture of Navajo Indian
culture and old-fashioned who-dun-it, then it did its job.
Though I haven't read all of the series, including the book this movie was based upon, the movie was a respectable representation of a typical Hillerman novel. I think one reviewer was right on the nose when they mentioned that both Leaphorn's and Chee's character, the two principle individuals in a good number of the novel series, were not entirely faithful to the book. That may have been necessary because in the books, both of them don't say anymore than necessary and there are a lot of character thoughts expressed to the reader, something that can't be done as easily through a movie unless the director uses a voice-over approach to express the thoughts. It wouldn't have worked, so I'm glad it wasn't done. Still, as an avid reader, Joe was overly stoic and Chee had a little too much gee-whiz kind of look. Believe me, these are small quibbles for what is otherwise an admirable job to play these two decidedly different men.
What is over-emphasized is the repeated complaint of those who say the characters didn't look Navajo-like or that the locations didn't represent the Navajo nation in general. As far as them not looking Navajo enough, I'd be willing to bet most of them didn't get that while watching the movie, they probably learned that little tidbit of information through the movie sites with extensive biographical info on the actors. So, exactly how many people who watch the movie who aren't from the immediate area are going to give a cactus prick about the actors not matching the tribal features of most Navajos? Precisely zip. Were these people also ones to object to Graham Greene playing the part of a Sioux native American in Dances With Wolves, considering he is a Oneidan native from Canada??? I doubt it. I'll watch Graham Greene playing anything, whether the part calls for native North American or not. Busting the chops of those who put together this movie because the wrong ancestry of the actors who were put in just should nitpick more important things like bills from Congress. The location complaint is just as bogus, it may have been too flat but it doesn't detract from the essence of film.
It isn't a perfect film, but it was well worth the time spent and I'll be looking out for more of these adaptations. It is a tribute to Hillerman's work that his would be the first mystery series based on an American novel to be produced through Mystery, who has provided such a terrific portfolio of British based mysteries for a long time.
I'm a fan of Hillerman's mysteries, and had high hopes for Redford's film
adaptations. I came away from Skinwalkers a bit disappointed. I should
preface my comments by saying that I've read about two-thirds of the
mysteries, and Skinwalkers is my least favorite, so in some sense my
disappointment started with the choice of book to adapt. However, my main
quibbles with the movie are independent of this issue.
The foremost problem is what I see as unfaithful characterizations of Leaphorn and Chee. In the books, Leaphorn's defining attribute is his preternatural intuition, which he backs up with methodical procedure--sort of an aging Navajo Adam Dalgleish. Chee's essence is that he's a good cop who has to overcome frequent waves of self-doubt. Both are men of few words, Leaphorn because his mind is always whirring, Chee because he's moody by nature. Perhaps most distinctly, the relationship between the two is extremely unequal: Chee is in awe of Leaphorn's reputation, and as such is perpetually worried about making a wrong move within Leaphorn's view. However, what the Skinwalker movie does is take a single dimension of the characters--the fact that Chee is an active participant in Navajo spirituality and Leaphorn is not--and make that their defining contrast. This distorts Leaphorn in particular almost beyond recognition: rather than the icy logician of the books, whose attitude toward Navajo spiritual tradition is at worst pragmatic, the movie renders him as sort of a reservation Dirty Harry (with a smaller gun), informed primarily by cynicism about human motives. Given this, there's nothing for Chee to be in awe of, and their collaboration is presented as an equal division of labor, with Chee providing the "Navajo insider" angle and Leaphorn the "hardheaded cop" grounding.
Beyond this, the plot of the movie diverged considerably from that of the book, for the worse in my opinion. Disparaging a movie for not being true to a book I didn't like all that much might sound like complaining about the small portions at a lousy restaurant, but the book did have some good moments, most of which got altered or left out. In particular, the book has an especially tense episode near the end when one of the principles is in grave danger, a scene that could have been adapted to great effect. Instead, the movie's denouement feels forced, as is not that exciting.
For fans of Hillerman's books, I strongly recommend seeing the film of The Dark Wind, which I think captures the feel of the books much better than does Skinwalkers. I have a harder time recommending The Dark Wind to those unfamiliar with the books, as it has a slow pace and will probably be hard to follow. I also liked the adapatation of Coyote Waits quite a bit, less than The Dark Wind, but much more than Skinwalkers.
I noticed that "Skinwalkers" was filmed in the Phoenix area, but Mr.
knew that he'd not be filming taboo places around Phoenix as was a problem
with "Dark Wind".
Navajo and those associated closely with the language will note that the actors are not flawless by any stretch, but at least they tried. Adam Beach is interested in the language and the people. I give credit for trying... twice! ("Windtalkers")
Tony Hillerman's books are always going to be better than his movies. I think the reason that they made Leaphorn so ignorant of his people's ways is so that bilighana (Anglo) (and you have to admit that most people watching any movie are not going to be Navajo) can understand why Chee does some of the things he does. Makes sense to Navajo and friends, but most others would just turn it off thinking it "weird" without the movie explaining thoughts and motives.
I hope this is enough of a success that they will try ALL of Mr. Hillerman's books which honor the beauty of a gentle people and their beautiful home. I would like to see them try Navajo actors, but Adam Beach is giving an admirable performance, especially in capturing the wonderful quiet ways of the Navajo.
Movies in sub-cultural settings become exceptional when you quickly forget
that it is, in fact, a sub-culture. Within minutes of the opening scenes of
"Skinwalkers", I no longer dwelt upon the thought that a murder movie on an
Indian Reservation is an unusual setting and, instead, focused on the murder
mystery itself. In this sense, it reminds me of "Barbershop"
(http://us.imdb.com/Title?0303714) in its ability to portray a particular
sub-culture in America without actually dwelling on the differences between
that sub-culture and America as a whole.
In other words, these movies become successful when you are drawn into the story so deeply that you realise that the sub-culture is as much a world in its own right as the so-called "majority" of America.
I would love to see this film turned into a weekly series. There's certainly enough potential depth of storylines to allow that.
This movie gave a moving portrayal of Native Americans, between ones that
wants to dismiss their past and assimilate with the outsider and their
cultures, and ones that wants to hang on to their tradition. It shows how
some are struggling with keeping their tradition in the modern world that is
continuously moving forward, while others are torn between accepting the new
and keeping with the old, or even ones who are completely disillusioned with
their heritage to the point of violent counter-reactions. It all comes down
to a complicated clash between various characters and how each one resolves
the issue within itself.
This was a good mystery film too, revealing little by little as to the motive for the murders.
Chris Eyre did a good job in this film, having seen his other movie Smoke Signals, he gives a somber atmosphere to both of these films. Not invoking the usual depressing ambience usually portrayed on these kind of environment, but not over-glorifying any aspects either.
All in all, a worthy film to watch.
Skinwalkers is the first film featuring Native American police officers
Lt. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, who are responsible for officiating
crime on a Navajo Reservation.
A Skinwalker is a sorcerer or witch that takes animal form, and commits terrible crimes, including murder. Traditionally, Navajos never say the word Skinwalker, for fear that a Skinwalker will take their life. Skinwalkers practice "bad medicine".
In Skinwalkers, a Native American Medicine Man (Healer) is found dead, his body surrounded by animal-like footprints, and his hand lacerated by a human-bone arrow, a traditional weapon of a Skinwalker.
Chee, struggling between his professionalism and traditional beliefs, feels the killer is a Skinwalker. Leaphorn, a city-reared Native American who's beginning to understand his Native roots, has no doubt the killer is a man who is hunting down Healers.
Together, Leaphorn and Chee seek to protect another Healer from the mysterious killer, and they slowly decrypt Navajo evidence that could lead to a ghostkiller or mankiller.
Skinwalkers weaves together thrilling Navajo folklore and art, mesmerizing copper-hued glowing landscapes, meditative musical lines, and harsh Native American reality - poverty, violence, anger, hurt, and an excruciatingly painful elimination of Native American tradition.
Robert Redfords PBS "Mystery" adaptations of Tony Hillerman's Navajo
police novels completely ruins the two main characters, Jim Chee and
Joe Leaphorn. Chee in the books was a regular guy who also happened to
be deeply involved in his people's culture, to the point of learning to
be a "singer" or healer. In the films he is already an expert on all
things spiritual, the mystical Indian stereotype who has no real
personality, no faults to speak of, no doubts about anything, no
insecurities. In Hillerman's books, Joe Leaphorn was a "legendary
detective" who was also a highly educated scholar, at least as if not
much more knowledgeable about Navajo and Native American culture and
religion than Chee. But though Leaphorn knew about it all, he didn't
live it in the mystical sense, not being particularly religious
himself. Leaphorn's god was logic and a belief that everything that
happens, happens for a reason. In these crappy movies, poor Wes Studi's
version of Leaphorn has been made into a man who knows virtually
nothing about his own culture, doomed to be forever "educated" by the
know it all mystic man Chee. This makes Chee ever superior, which is
very ironic, because in the books, Chee always feels vastly inferior to
Leaphorn because of his much greater police knowledge, education, and
experience. And it was this part of the relationship that made their
two characters so interesting when thrown together.
Producer Robert Redford took two fairly complex characters (by paperback mystery novel standards) and mooshed 'em down into nothing but two more Indian stereotypes.
Redford's first effort to adapt Hillerman (which his company now tries to pretend never existed) was Errol Morris's "The Dark Wind." While that flick was no masterpiece, it was head and feet above these slow, dumbed down TV movies.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
(Comment originally posted 7 May 2003) I was surprised and disappointed
not to see Tony Hillerman's name in the writing credits as the author
of the books on which this movie and these characters were based. My
cousin, who spent two years teaching on the Navajo Nation in Gallup,
NM, recommended the book "Skinwalkers" to me and it was the first of
the series that I read. I have since read every book in the series, but
"Skinwalkers" is my favorite. I highly recommend the series to anyone
who enjoys mysteries, and especially if you have seen this movie
already, you ought to read the books. The series began back in the
seventies and is still going strong, with each new book an automatic
best seller. I thought the movie was all right, but did not like many
of the changes made in the transition from book to movie, nor did I
understand why they were made. For instance, in the books, Joe Leaphorn
is not a transplant from Phoenix; he has been working on the Nation for
years and is legendary as a detective. He is not a traditional Navajo
like Chee, but also does not need to be taught the customs, as he does
in the movie. In the books, Chee is in awe of Leaphorn, something that
doesn't come across in the movie at all.
The characters were cast pretty well, although Adam Beach is so good-looking that it distracts from the story, because I was too busy wondering what he'd look like if he took his shirt off, instead of paying attention to the plot! He reminded me of a "Top Gun"ish Tom Cruise (before Tom Cruise became creepy), and Wes Studi was very much like Tommy Lee Jones. It's kind of interesting that in one scene in the movie, they make a point of a white woman thinking all Native Americans looked alike, and I had to smile because that's kind of how casting works for Native Americans. At least two of the leads were from Canadian tribes, the woman playing Janet Pete was from a Mohawk Indian tribe, etc. Were any of the characters actually Navajo, or even from southwestern tribes? I was curious because, in the books, the issue of racism comes up often, and Jim Chee wonders how white people mix up the different tribes as well as confusing Navajo with Hispanics, yet he himself has a hard time telling white people apart. (Tony Hillerman, a white man, has won awards from the Navajo Nation for his portrayal of the Navajo and many issues that they face.) Well, I assume most people who have seen the movies HAVE read the books, but again, if not, I don't think you'd be disappointed. You might also like "The Dark Wind" starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Chee and Fred Ward as Leaphorn. But to really enjoy these characters, read them as Tony Hillerman writes them.
The only really good thing I can say about this movie is that it inspired me
to re-read the book. The book had some scenes that would have made
wonderful cinema such as the interogation of a murder suspect who gleefully
confesses to the committing the crime but claims to have used a rifle
instead of a knife, the surprise reception for Chee at his first session as
a healer, the discovery of the true identity of the shotgun artist,
Leaphorn's rescue of Chee that unintentionally delivers him into the hands
of the real murderer, and the ironic circumstances that rescue Chee for the
second time. What was the reason for discarding these potentialy terrific
moments and replacing them with a script that was almost on the same level
as the type of Hollywood TV detective series that gets justifiably canceled
in its first season?
Some other elements from the book that were missing or barely noticeable in the movie include the thrill of Chee being able to prove himself to the legendary Leaphorn, the intricate convergence of both detectives towards the same suspect from different evidence, Leaphorn's map, the evidence of how some Navajo endure the hassle of nearly impassable roads in order to live in locations of isolation and visual splendor, and of course the original method used by the murderer to commit his crimes.
Perhaps someday America will produce a mystery series on par with the best that England has to offer. Tony Hillerman's novel are certainly the proper raw material for such an endeavour, but to me this movie is a major irritant as I can not help seeing how it squanders the opportunity to have created something truly excellent.
Way to go Jamie! A great job! We hope this turns into a series.
I like the fact that all the actors and the director were of Native-American descent, it gives the story more authenticity.
A murder happened in an Indian country, thus the investigation and trial were subject to the jurisdiction of the tribe. This shows great aspects of Indian Law and culture. I highly recommend that law professors use this movie to teach the students how the justice system operates in an Indian Country. As a student of American Indian Law, I found that they were a minority group the was really hurt by the people that came to North America to find a land of freedom. Those who came in pursuit of happiness almost destroyed those who were living here so peacefully. I cannot believe that the American Indians were given land, but not given the right to use the water on the same land. Sorry, I am getting carried away in tangent here. I like anyone who gives any minority group an opportunity to be portrayed as `human beings' rather than the traditional stereotypes.
The mystic side of the culture is shown as well, and it is done with details on their symbols and witchcraft.
I think that the casting was wonderful, giving Native Americans a chance to shine. It would be a great to see a minority group that seldom has the chance to be portrayed in a positive fashion to have a series where they are not the `nasty, dumb guys' Jamie is following his dad, Robert Redford's, footsteps and breaking new ground in the American film industry! I am big fan of the entire family and will give them my whole heartedly support in any way I can! Robert Redford has given an endowment to the American cinema, as well as the International cinema like no one else I know of. It is so nice to see the second generation moving in the same direction!
Suspenseful, extremely well written and very educational! BRAVO!
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