When we first see Ray Levoi he's cruising the Beltway donning opaque aviator Ray-Bans, a crisp white shirt, and regimental-stripe tie. As he impatiently twists the dial on the car radio, we can see he's another ambitious young striver on his way to work in the nation's capital. Another loyal servant of the U.S. government. Total FBI. The man embodies the well-scrubbed, stone-smooth face of a career cop on the make.
Before the forces of fate are through with him, though, Ray will shed his shades, blue blazer, and gung-ho pose. In the course of a murder investigation in the Dakota Badlands, he will heed the timeless call of his ancestors, listen to the trees and the wind, and discover his true self. In politically correct fashion, Ray Levoi will cast off his soulless, white-bread shell and, stirred by a drop of red blood coursing through his veins, emerge an honorable Oglala Sioux warrior. Call him Thunderheart.
Welcome back to Native America, Hollywood-style. Now that the movies' old cavalry charge has ceased and Dances With Wolves is in the record books, the American entertainment industry is doing a tomahawk chop of its own. Cowboys are out, Indians are in (along with AIDS research, cloth coats, and rain forest reclamation), where they will remain until their box-office value dries up. Then the well-heeled partygoers of Bel-Air will adopt some other worthy cause.
While you shouldn't underestimate the intelligence of the studio crowd - or necessarily question their motives - let's say that Thunderheart is something more than Kevin "Walks in Sleep" Costner's second coming of 1991. For one thing, the magnetic young star playing Ray Levoi, Val Kilmer, late of The Doors and part Cherokee himself, puts a terrific charge into this film, which quickly outgrows the murder-mystery formula in favor of mystical quest. For another, the full-blooded Native American actors - notably Graham Greene as a savvy, witty tribal policeman and Chief Ted Thin Elk as a medicine man with one eye on the heavens and the other on the TV set in his shack - bring a welcome complexity and ambiguity to their characters. These are no Central Casting "Injuns." And mercifully, theirs aren't packaged emotions.
Credit is also due British director Michael Apted (maker of the 7 Up series of documentaries, Coal Miner's Daughter, and Gorillas in the Mist) and John Fusco, the screenwriter. Fusco spent five years visiting the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota (where Thunderheart was filmed) and obviously came away with an understanding of Sioux culture that is every bit the equal of his splendid gift for dialogue. The producer, incidentally, is a fellow by the name of Robert De Niro.
Fusco based his story on numerous incidents that ignited something like civil war on several western Indian reservations in the 1970s - confrontations between radical traditionalists and pro-government vigilantes, a dozen unsolved murders and mysterious bombings, and the intrusion of FBI agents wearing blue suits and the aura of official arrogance.
In the film, agent Levoi is sent to Pine Ridge in the company of a seasoned veteran named Frank "Cooch" Coutelle (Sam Shepard) because one Leo Fast Elk has been found shot to death in a remote arroyo. To the government, the obvious suspect is a radical firebrand named Jimmy Looks Twice (former AIM chairman John Trudell), and old hand Coudell means to strike quickly, grab his man, and make tracks out of what he calls "the Third World, slapdab in the middle of America." Despite his long-repressed Sioux blood, young Levoi is just along for the ride.
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Naturally, things heat up in the hot Dakota sun. Greene's canny tribal cop, Walter Crow Horse, subtly steers the younger FBI man away from a pat solution to the murder, and he confounds this "Washington Redskin" with a series of clever feints and slights. Meanwhile, the ancient medicine man, Grandpa Sam Reaches, slowly opens the visitor's mind. The drama of Thunderheart doesn't concern who killed Leo Fast Elk, but how Ray Levoi reclaims his soul.
His transformation is predictable, inevitable even. So are the conspiracy most foul that comes to light seven-eighths of the way along and the ensuing car chase. But the cat-and-mouse between Kilmer and Greene, and the oblique force of Grandpa, with his visions and instincts, move us in unexpected ways. We, too, feel the tug of an ancient spirit. Thunderheart is also wonderfully funny in places, particularly where it plays the mundane off against the eternal. When Thin Elk (an honored Sioux elder himself) flips on the tube, he can't help observing that "Mr. Magoo needs to go up on the mountain and get himself focused."
This is the first film to be shot at Pine Ridge - writer Fusco won the right through his hard-won status with the Sioux - and these moviemakers give us more than a cultural tour of sweat lodges, pow-wows, and Native American mores. Apted and cinematographer Roger Deakins also reveal the startling contrasts at work in this beautiful, doomed place called the Rez: Against a spectacular backdrop of bluffs and mesas, we see the signs of poverty and deprivation - rusted car hulks and junkyard dogs, the shacks and trailers of an imprisoned people. Under a brilliant blue sky, we come to see not only the natural harmony that nourishes Grandpa and Walter Crow Horse's more world-wise version, but the tragedies, large and small, inflicted by oppression.
Screenplay by John Fusco. Directed by Michael Apted. With Val Kilmer, Graham Greene, Chief Ted Thin Elk, and Sam Shepard.