Into the Open, by David Bax
Note: this review originally ran as part of our Los Angeles Film Festival coverage in 2013.
Back in 2002, Alex and Andrew Smith made a film called The Slaughter Rule. That movie – about an angry teenager processing the death of his father while balancing the struggles of his replacement paternal figure, his football coach, and the peculiarities of becoming a man himself – made a deep impression on me. I consider it to be the among the best and most frustratingly underseen films of its decade. So it was with great eagerness that I jumped at the chance, eleven years later, to see the Smiths’ follow-up, Winter in the Blood.
Based on a novel by James Welch, Winter in the Blood is about a man whose father’s death is not so recent as in The Slaughter Rule but which hangs similarly in the atmosphere. Virgil, a Native American man living in Montana, spends the film thinking about his father and older brother, both dead, while drinking, stumbling, fighting, flirting and finding odd jobs while attempting to get back the rifle his wife took when she left. He’s so drunk for most of the movie, it’s unclear both to him and to us which things we see actually happened and which are dreams or hallucinations.
Virgil, a lazy and unreliable alcoholic, begins the film rather difficult to like. As we see more of the flashbacks to his childhood that are peppered throughout, we come to understand sympathize with him, though the Smiths and screenwriter Ken White continue to challenge that sympathy. The film does not let Virgil off the hook for being the way he is. It’s up to him to do that.
As in The Slaughter Rule, the Smiths employ a meandering style that is impressionistic without ever being showy. Voiceovers and images fade in and out. Time seems to expand and contract. And the guitars on the soundtrack (lent by the Heartless Bastards) trip dreamily along, not directionless but not exactly sure where they’re going either.
The winter of the title is not onscreen; with the exception of a few flashbacks, the film takes place in the heat of summer. But, as the name suggests, winter represents something just under the surface. There’s something in the blood, in the animals, in the dirt, in the town and in the liquor. Maybe it’s the heavy darkness of reality and maybe it’s in all of us. Virgil’s pain is caused either by his embracing it too much or not at all. His struggle to do so is beautifully realized.