Home Video Hovel: Winter in the Blood, by Dayne Linford
Winter in the Blood is billed as a vision quest, opening with a young man, Virgil (Chaske Spencer), waking up after a bender in the same ditch his father died in. What it really is, however, is a complex layering of flashbacks, darting between the central figures in his life – his father, his grandmother, his older brother, and his wife, the latter, he discovers upon returning home, has left him, taking his father’s rifle with her. What follows is a quest of sorts to retrieve the rifle and perhaps the girl, but is quickly waylaid by a series of drunken escapades. This is where the film most closely approximates the notion of a vision quest, though Winter is best described as a series of approximations, none of which quite land successfully.
The main subject of the film is death, of self, of family, and of culture, and its tone is the lingering decay of Indian existence on these Montana reservations. All this death surrounds Virgil, who’s existence teeters on the same edge. This tone is by far the most successful aspect of the film, providing a lived in sense to the world and a backdrop that renders the character’s struggles all the more vivid. This is particularly successful when the film addresses it straightforwardly, as in a beautiful, heart-breaking conversation between the lead and his mother, framed simply against a well.
Often, however, we are taken adrift by the central conceit of the film, the layered flashback structure. The purpose of this is to slowly lead us to the climactic, central trauma of a host of traumas, which explains, in much too neat a fashion, Virgil’s self-destructive behavior throughout the film. Especially paired with an annoyingly omnipresent, omniscient narrator, this feels redundant, a going over again and again of the motives for this character’s behavior. Being an adaptive piece, this pairing perhaps works better as literature, especially given the time literature takes to undermine and complicate its narrative voice, but a subpar film adapted from perhaps good literature is, nonetheless, a subpar film.
The closest the film comes to a vision quest is in Virgil’s drunken escapades with a white hunter, a wonderful turn for David Morse. The film takes unnecessary and infantilizing pains to highlight the impressionism of these adventures, Morse’s hunter mirroring hunters in a book Virgil earlier read to his grandmother, which in case you didn’t catch it, the narrator makes sure you remember. However, the film breaks out of itself when Morse is on screen, and his departure is greatly missed.
The acting is good, the setting beautiful, the tone well-realized, the filming itself done well. So, why isn’t Winter successful? Winter is a pastiche of too many ideas, impressions, and tonal shifts, the kind of combination that can work wonderfully in literature but is usually too unfocused for film. As a vision quest, flashback-laden, narrated, straightforward film, there’s too much obfuscation of the character’s emotions and traumas for us to really dwell with them, which renders the big reveal we didn’t know was coming kind of a flop, a trauma too simply presented to explain or edify the structural house of cards erected throughout. There’s a good film in here, a Last Year at Marienbad style vision quest, or a straightforward depiction of a cultural death and alcoholism, or a narrated tone poem, but, by attempting all these, Winter renders its emotional impact negligible, especially tragic for such a potentially packed subject.