April 3, 1992
“We choose the right to be who we are.”
THUNDERHEART is not a weird movie like some of these other 1992 releases, but it’s a pretty unusual one: a procedural thriller that attempts to shine a light on real life injustices taking place on tribal land in the U.S. An opening title says “This story was inspired by events that took place on several American Indian reservations during the 1970’s.” From what I’ve read it’s largely inspired by the Wounded Knee Incident of 1973, but director Michael Apted (COAL MINER’S DAUGHTER) also released the documentary INCIDENT AT OGLALA later in the summer, and that was about similar clashes between traditional and Americanized Sioux and a shootout with the FBI on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975. I assume those events influenced it as well.
After the murder of tribal council member Leo Fast Elk (Allan R.J. Joseph, later a stuntman on DESPERADO) on a South Dakota reservation, FBI Agent Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer following his MTV Movie Awards nominated role in THE DOORS) gets called to Washington DC by his boss (Fred Dalton Thompson, who had ACES: IRON EAGLE III coming out in June). They know from his file that he has mixed Native heritage through his biological father, but he’s so out of touch with it he has to be told it’s Sioux and that his father died when he was 7 (he says it was when he was a baby). It’s just not a part of his life, but they make it very clear that they’ve chosen him for this case so they can tell the locals he’s one of them. “You’re going in there as who you are— an American Indian federal officer.” Should go great.
He’s greeted at the airport by his partner for the case, Frank Coutelle (Sam Shepard in his followup to DEFENSELESS), who’s immediately a good character because he interrupts the conversation to make Ray turn his head sideways and tell him, “You kind of remind me of Sal Mineo in ARROWS ON THE PRAIRIE.” And then for a while he calls him Sal.
(Weirdly, though, that’s not a real movie title. I bet Rick Dalton was in ARROWS ON THE PRAIRIE.)
When they go out to look at the body (still lying there face down for them to deal with) they see Walter Crow Horse (Graham Greene, who had recently received a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for DANCES WITH WOLVES) show up and try to move him. Ray tackles Walter and grabs him by the hair before learning that he’s a tribal cop. Whoops. Seems he got fed up waiting for these assholes to do their job and was gonna give the poor guy a proper burial.
I think at first Walter gives Ray the benefit of the doubt as “the Indian official” until he sees his reaction when he says that Leo Fast Elk has “gotta get to the ceremony. Gotta make the journey.” Ray asks, “What journey?” and then “Oh, the journey. Right.” After that I think Walter purposely puts him on the spot about cultural things he oughta know, just to fuck with him.
The FBI people are very cynical about the militant group ARM (a fictional version of AIM), who are “there to defend the traditional natives against the pro-government natives.” He meets the pro-government natives in the form of tribal president Jack Milton (the late great Fred Ward, ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ, UNCOMMON VALOR, REMO WILLIAMS, MIAMI BLUES), who blocks the road with a bunch of armed goons for “road inspections” where they stop people they don’t like, rough them up and dump all their belongings in the dirt because they’re “looking for someone.” And the goons are even called GOONs, as in “Guardians of the Oglala Nations,” which I guess is a real thing.
Ward is, of course, perfect to play a scary, macho cowboy-hat-and-bolo-tie dude corralling a bunch of heavily armed thugs to terrorize everybody. Using that usual swagger and charisma for menace. And I never knew this until looking it up for this review, but he was of part Cherokee descent.
Frank thinks Leo Fast Elk was killed by ARM leader Jimmy Looks Twice (John Trudell, later in ON DEADLY GROUND), who they chase and capture, but he gets away in a crazy scene where Frank gets bit on the hand by a badger (planned by Jimmy!?) so he makes a run for it. When Ray sees a deer running away it begins an ambiguous magical realism implication that Jimmy could be a shapeshifter. By that interpretation he’s also the dog that starts following Ray around. Ray even jokingly calls the dog Jimmy. He also has dreams that could be interpreted as visions.
Ray finds out the murder was actually committed on the property of an activist school teacher named Maggie Eagle Bear (introducing Sheila Tousey, later in LORD OF ILLUSIONS), who is not cooperative until he comes back and gets her grandmother (Sarah Brave) to like him by following the tradition of bringing tobacco to an elder. Something similar happens with tribal elder Grandpa Sam Reaches (Chief Ted Thin Elk), who Frank and friends drag out of a sweat lodge during a ceremony. Later Ray and Walter come over to his place and interrupt him watching Mr. Magoo, so he gets Ray to smoke a peace pipe and trade his prized sunglasses for a rock.
Ray goes through an arc that’s unsurprising, but pretty satisfying. He assumes the militants are to blame for everything, gets mad when Frank calls the Sioux “your people,” says jerky shit like, “Well, if they want to do some good they should clean up the garbage in their front yards first.” Any traditional stuff he takes part in is done at first reluctantly and only to ingratiate himself. And for a while he doesn’t say anything about the feds and militiamen being total fucking assholes. Example: when they go into Maggie’s school they not only terrorize tiny kids and trash the place – one guy makes a point of individually knocking over each of the little desks. What legitimate policing purpose could that possibly serve? None, of course, so it seems like something they would really do. Later Ray finally starts objecting to this shit, like when one of them for no reason steps on Grandpa’s turtle shell rattle. Earlier he said it was 500 years old – a good way to make it hurt for Ray and the audience.
The big turning point is when one of Milton’s militia members shoots Maggie’s son (Jerome Mack) in the arm and Ray goes above and beyond in getting him medical help. This is also when he gets blood all over his shirt and sheds the suit and tie he’s been wearing. A transformation. As he spends time with Maggie it’s pretty obvious that she’s not the extremist who “openly advocates systematic violence” that Frank told him she was. He starts to open his eyes to all the horrible shit the FBI and the GOONs are doing and sympathizing more with the activists. He even catches up with Jimmy (in human form) and tries to convince him to run, has a good talk with him, and when other feds storm in he points his gun at them. Then spins back around to Jimmy like, Oh, um, yeah – I was totally about to arrest him is what’s going on here. Yep.
Of course he ends up uncovering a conspiracy of corruption and working with Walter against all the other bastards. The mystery and investigation are a little bit convoluted, but as a result seem a little less phony than some stories like this do. It feels like there’s more truth behind it than your average ‘90s thriller, despite any contrivances and one cliche use of a mystical bird sound.
What I like about Kilmer’s performance is that he’s kind of a dork. I think this is a choice, because we’d already seen him be Elvis-like in TOP SECRET and effortlessly cool in REAL GENIUS and Iceman in TOP GUN. Here he’s out of his element both with the locals and with his partner, always seems stiff and uptight, obnoxiously chews gum to overcompensate. I like that the first time he encounters Milton he puts his sunglasses on like it’s gonna make him look tougher for the confrontation. So then when he reluctantly trades them to Grandpa it’s like he lost his armor.
Also, this guy is terrible in shootouts! He keeps firing without looking, just aiming in a general direction. Seems dangerous.
From what I can tell Kilmer’s ancestry is all European. If this were made now I think they would either cast someone with some actual Native heritage or get alot of shit for not doing it. Which is good. But by the standards of 1992 I think this was an admirable movie, bringing light to issues that have been (and continue to be) ignored, swept under the rug or misconstrued in our country. And of course it gave some good roles to actors besides Kilmer.
Tousey has a really strong presence as Maggie (SPOILER), making it more shocking and upsetting when she abruptly meets a horrible end. Greene is unsurprisingly great as Walter. He gets to be cool, riding a motorcycle, having the best smartass comments. My favorite parts of the movie are when it’s a buddy movie between Ray and Walter, even if it uses that cliche where Walter’s tracking skills are pretty much just straight up magic. Telling him in detail about his shoes and the specific weapons he has on his hip and ankle based on a partial footprint. Come on, man. He’s great though. I wish there were more Walter Crow Horse mysteries, with or without Ray.
Chief Ted Thin Elk was 72 years old and had not acted before, but after this he was in the movies THE BROKEN CHAIN and WALKING THUNDER and the mini-series Heaven and Hell: North and South, Book III.
The craziest cameo besides the badger is fuckin David Crosby, once again randomly showing up in a small part like he did in BACKDRAFT the year before. He plays a bartender who’s working when someone throws a firebomb, so he grabs a shotgun and runs outside firing. Then he calls them a slur that includes the n-word. Quite a role. (He’s actually perfect for it and it’s a good scene. It’s there to move the investigation along with a Ray-Frank conversation, but they also manage to have some anarchic shit pop off.)
Screenwriter John Fusco was best known at the time for YOUNG GUNS I and II. He later explored more Native American characters in SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMARRON and the mini-series Dreamkeeper. And after SPIRIT he did another horse movie, HIDALGO. He’s also a blues musician (so he wrote Walter Hill’s CROSSROADS) and practices Northern Shaolin Kung Fu, Wing Chun and Jeet Kune Do (so he wrote FORBIDDEN KINGDOM and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY, plus a children’s book about the founding of praying mantis kung fu). While researching his TV series Marco Polo he and his son crossed Central Mongolia on horseback with Mongol nomads. So he seems pretty cool to me.
THUNDERHEART was shot by the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (BARTON FINK). It does a good job of capturing the landscape, but to be honest did not jump out at me as particularly good looking like some of the Deakins joints. Well, except for this part:
And actually now that I look at it that’s a really impressive shot because it’s beautiful slo-mo in front of a sunset that uses a gnarly, chunky squib in the same shot. Then cuts into a beautiful stunt that either was also shot at that time of day or convincingly tinted to look like it.
That shot rolls right into Val Kilmer’s credit and the title, a great start. Okay, I just convinced myself – this does have that Deakins magic. I also liked an overhead shot at the end that pulls back and shows how many guns are being aimed at the feds and GOONs from above – we know this was before shots like that were faked/enhanced digitally, so it’s very epic.
THUNDERHEART opened in 5th place at the domestic box office, beneath WHITE MEN CAN’T JUMP (week 2), BASIC INSTINCT (week 3) and fellow newcomers BEETHOVEN and STRAIGHT TALK. So it didn’t do great, but it got good reviews. And I liked it. It’s pretty good.
tie-ins: There was a novelization by the prolific romance/sci-fi/crime author Ann Maxwell (credited as “Lowell Charters”).