Chris Eyre's 1998 film Smoke Signals seemed the perfect antidote to 100 years of paleface cinema. Finally, here was a Native American look at Native Americans. And although the quirky road movie was awkward in places, you felt like you were getting your first real taste of life on the rez. Now, Eyre's back with his second film, Skins, and I wish I could say it picks up where Smoke Signals left off, esthetically speaking. It doesn't, maybe because Sherman Alexie, who wrote the script for Smoke Signals, wasn't involved this time. Skins is still well worth seeing, if only because it takes us deep inside the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux and the site of more pain than any parcel of land should have to bear.
Standing in the shadow of Mount Rushmore, Pine Ridge is one of the poorest areas in the country. Employment is 12% ' employment, not unemployment. And alcohol abuse is so rampant that it seems to have become a way of life. Based on a 1995 novel by Adrian Louis, Skins concerns a pair of brothers who appear to have taken different paths. Rudy (Eric Schweig) is a cop, Mogie (Graham Greene) is a drunk. But it's more complicated than that. Mogie's also a decorated Viet vet, and Rudy's so fed up with the way things are that he's begun to take the law into his own hands. These vigilante acts come back to haunt him when, from the roof of a liquor store he's torched, comes tumbling an inebriated Mogie, his clothes on fire.
The movie does a nice job of avoiding the old Cain-and-Abel split, but you wind up wishing Eyre had delved into his characters a little more ' into Rudy's feelings about policing his own people, for instance. And I, for one, missed the humor that Eyre brought to Smoke Signals. Skins has an uneasy tone, coming on like a documentary in places, like an exploitation flick in others ("Prepare to meet your maker," Rudy says to victims), finally settling into a family melodrama. But for all these flaws, it continues Eyre's project of chipping away at Native American stereotypes, and in that sense I'd take it over Dances With Wolves any day of the week.