To the heart of the matter is that the film is based on James Welch's classic book of the same name. Welch, a Blackfeet Indian author, had made the book as a travelogue of sorts of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and surrounding Montana Hi-Line area next to the Canadian border. This area is detrimental to the storytelling as the rolling prairies bordered by stout mountains seemingly creates a natural barrier of indifference among the characters to each other. With a dearth of people in the area to begin with, finding someone close to relate to and trust is a luxury, and Virgil First Raise loses the father and his only best friend brother that would help him deal with life's curve balls easier and at least genuinely enjoy some of it.
So in the first scene, we find Virgil lying in a ditch waking up rough after a heavy night of drinking. He's down and feeling out, plus he's told his heirloom rifle is missing - stolen by his wife who left him - and so he sets off to find it. Along the way he comes across many interesting characters such as the highly entertaining 'Airplane Man' (David Morse), and we're introduced to his step-father Lame Bull (Gary Farmer). For those familiar with recent Native American actors in cinema, let's just say Farmer as usual is his usual humorous and brilliant self.
Those not familiar with reservation life or rural areas like this might be confused how to react to this film. It's not politically correct at all as it doesn't dare shy away from alcohol abuse. In one telling scene, an obnoxiously drunk Lame Bull leans back in his chair laughing loudly, and Virgil 'helps' lift his chair up just enough to make him fall on his back. Funny as Farmer handles it, Virgil uses the incident as a ploy to pour himself an extra cup of Lame Bull's bottle and proceed to guzzle it. It's the painful look in Virgil's eyes that's most telling. He wanted the drink, but he's tired of it. He wants another way.
If one has read the novel, you'll be able to follow the plot line as it stays very faithful to the source material. But for those not familiar with it, parts like the meaning of the eccentric Canadian smuggler David Morse as the Airplane Man will baffle them, leaving their minds to dwell upon his importance to the whole narrative. (Is it a mystery? What is his true meaning? Etc.) But even in the novel his meaning was always up for grabs, so it's best to just leave it that he came across the border from the similarly vast Canadian wild lands, and thus acted as such.
The movie takes place in the 60's, but it could have been told this summer such is the slow pace of the land that creates a feeling that the people haven't caught quite up with the times. That's not an insult, it's just worth nothing all the places were filmed at the original real locations that the book wrote about, and they didn't have to do much to make it look like it did 40 plus years ago aside from change out the automobiles in scenes. It's vast prairies on a hot day. It's dark bars. It's cold and windy winter days. It's a part of Montana that's overlooked in the tourist brochures. This was the land where Indians roamed and hunted the once abundant herds of bison, and with them gone many struggle to find their place in this modern world and so that leaves them with a sense of despair. (It's worth noting in real life, the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation of the same area has some of the highest rates of suicide in the U.S.)
Out of boredom locals like Virgil turn to drink after working hard all day in the field, get drunk, and do it all over again in hopes of breaking the monotony. Virgil and grew up wanting to be the cowboy. Cowboys always won. They beat the bad guy Indians. As he grows up without his dad and best friend that was his older brother - who are shown in various flashbacks - he doesn't know where he belongs and is tired of living with the death surrounding him, and he hopes to find life soon before it's too late. This Winter In the Blood film carries us through that journey with a meticulous and heartfelt eye.
I strongly recommend you buy a ticket when it comes out near you or buy the DVD if you're a true fan of cinema as an art form, but 'caveat emptor' - or "let the buyer beware" - you'll experience a blunt portrayal of life depicted through the eyes of a man trying to find meaning in a place you've never been.