Best Movies That You’ve Never Heard of: Thunderheart – Always Get Tape!
By and large, I spend my time watching highly re-watchable movies and TV genre shows: i.e. comedies, action, sci-fi, and horror. That is my wheelhouse, and it is where my comfort zone is. If I’m in the mood for a little background noise while I’m working around the house – or better still drawing for my upcoming web comic Nerfed Llamas! I toss a staple in the Blu Ray player: The X-Files, Fringe, Hot Tub Time Machine, Trancers, Captain America: the Winter Soldier, Any James Bond flick, etc. Rarely ever do I watch purely dramatic films more than once. It’s not that they aren’t good films, it’s just not my preferred form of filmed entertainment. I much prefer movies that are more fun to watch, as opposed to the emotional heaviness of serious films. So many of these dramatic films are dour, depressing and shine a harsh light on the futility of reality. I live in reality, and as such I do not feel an overwhelming need to be drowned in its brutal truths while watching it on the TV with my wife. I want to be entertained! I want fun stories of the quirky underdog winning through obscure ingenuity. I want impossible scenarios that challenge our understanding of the space time continuum. I want tightly told tales of covert operations and the men and women who risk their lives to keep the world safe. I want heroes in tights! However, on occasion I do find that a nice dramatic movie with a powerful and positive message, and the right balance of humor, drama, and social commentary is precisely what I want to watch. When I am in that mood, my go to film is always Thunderheart.
Produced by Robert Deniro and directed by Michael Apted (who also directed a documentary titled “Incident at Oglala” about further factual events from other tumultuous tribal events circa 1975) from a screenplay by John Fusco, Thunderheart is a loose film adaptation of the Wounded Knee Incident of 1973. Tensions across multiple reservations had grown to a fever pitch, and most tribes were split into 2 groups – one that preferred maintaining tribal customs, and another group which was pro-USA government. The plot follows a young but talented FBI Agent, Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer) who is assigned to investigate a political murder of Leo Fast Elk on a Native American reservation in South Dakota. Agent Levoi is considered ideal for the investigation because he has a direct line of native heritage through his Father who was one half Sioux. Ray is partnered with Agent Frank “Cooch” Coutelle (Sam Shepard), who is considered very successful within the agency, even possibly a living legend. They are given 3 days to close up the investigation and to help the pro-government natives. The idea being that the FBI is sending an Agent who is also of native decent will help smooth over relations with the tribe and bring forth a satisfactory result for the Bureau. What follows is a tale of personal exploration, cultural understanding, deceit, and awakening to the true spirit inside you.
What normally turns me off to most pure dramatic films is that they have nearly zero levity. Nobody is showing even an ounce of enjoying life, and as such, a hefty lot of the dramatic films are bereft of any of the highs and lows that encompass the human experience. Life is full of love, laughter, happiness, family, friends, work, frustration, sadness, betrayal, and more: at all times. So many of the dramatic films that I sit through seem to fail to understand that people are allowed to be happy, even when their world is crumbling around them. Thunderheart shows an understanding of the highs and lows of life, both through the life of a well lived FBI Agent and through the lives of the Native Americans who live far below the poverty level. There is definitely humor, mostly brought in incredible style by a strong performance by Graham Greene, who performs the role of tribal police officer Walter Crow Horse. Walter is a fun loving police officer who believes very strongly in the customs of his people, and also loves to poke fun at the FBI Agents who are small fish swimming in a very large ocean at the reservation. Yet, for as much fun as he brings to the movie, Walter also serves as a guide to the viewer, explaining the complexities of tribal beliefs and also at expressing the weight of the loss that he feels each time a member of his tribe is found dead.
Val Kilmer’s turn as Ray Levoi is also notable, in that he puts a tremendous performance as the hesitant mixed breed FBI Agent. Levoi is not proud of his heritage, nor of his father, and this assignment is a test of conviction for him. He wants to impress the Bureau and his partner Coutelle, yet at the same time he doesn’t want to do it on the blood of his father, he wants to accomplish his goals through his investigative skills and the strength of his character. For Levoi, this is a journey that will change him for the rest of his life, and should be a reminder to us that we should embrace our heritage, not run away from it. Levoi also gets his fair share of levity in, and Kilmer has always been a natural comedic actor, so when he and Walter get together the audience is usually given a well-earned moment of humor.
Sam Shepard doesn’t get to join in with the jokes, but he gets to chew the scenery pretty well with his serious and opinionated performance of Agent Coutelle. “Cooch” is a hard nosed Agent who wants results and doesn’t want to give a quarter to get them. Shepard is a master of his craft and his nuanced portrayal of “Cooch” is exactly the kind of actor you want to see in a powerful film like Thunderheart. “Cooch” represents a very real and damning view of how many Americans feel about the plight of indigenous peoples, and you had to have an actor of Shepard’s caliber to pull it off.
All in all, these 3 main actors put in masterful performances that help successfully drive this emotionally and culturally charged story. It is also important to note that the supporting cast, Fred Ward, Sheila Tousey, Fred Thompson and John Trudell, all put in fantastic performances to round out the cast. Ted Thin Elk pits in a wonderfully nuanced performance as Grandpa Sam, the tribal elder whose bond with Agent Levoi is pure movie magic, an absolute delight for the eyes and ears.
Something that I find kind of amazing about this story, is just how much of the tribal experience is brought to the forefront of the film. Living conditions are miserable and no one in the reservation is portrayed as having what we would consider adequate living arrangements. There are the traditional aspects of tribal life on display, dancing, chanting, pipe smoking, and ancient stories being told orally, but there is also a lot of strife shown, as many members amongst the tribe are anti-USA government and want to see the tribe return to its roots. There is a sort of civil war going on between the tribal citizens, and it makes all of the situations, good and bad, all the more intense as everything that happens has potentially dire consequences for the whole tribe. Yet, through all of the tumult and chaos there is a beauty in the legacy of the tribe and in the customs that they hold dear, which is central to the importance of the story being told.
I chose to leave a lot of the plot of the film out of this review, primarily because I didn’t want to spoil the movie for anybody who hasn’t seen it yet.
Bottom Line: It is a beautiful movie about the importance of heritage, knowing who you are, and about standing for what is right at all costs. If you are in the mood for a film that will move you, yet not depress you, while at the same time opening your eyes to the plight of a people that have been continually wronged by the United States government, then I would highly encourage you to find a copy of Thunderheart and watch it immediately. It is well worth your time and is a fantastic addition to any video collection. It is available on DVD and through various digital providers. Sadly Thunderheart has not yet been released on Blu Ray disc, but hopefully it will be soon.
Enjoy the trailer for Thunderheart, and remember… “always get tape!”: