Last of the Monster Kids

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Thursday, April 7, 2016

Director Report Card: Errol Morris (1991)

4. The Dark Wind

Errol Morris remains one of the most critically respected documentary filmmakers out there. Despite his long career, the director has only ever made one narrative film. “The Dark Wind” was adapted from Tony Hillerman’s long-running series of Navajo-based murder mysteries, focusing on the character of Jim Chee. Produced by Robert Redford, who hoped to launch the series, Morris and his producers frequently butted heads and the movie was barely released to theaters. This is probably the primary reason why Morris has mostly stuck to documentaries since then. Yet “The Dark Wind” remains an interesting exclusion in the director’s long career.

Jim Chee is an officer for the Navajo Tribal Police in Arizona, working to enforce the law on the Navajo and Hopi reservations. Chee is also training to be a tribal healer and believes deeply in the old ways. His boss assigns him to mild crimes, like watching a windmill that has been repeatedly vandalized or investigating the petty theft of a shop. Instead, Chee discovers a grisly murder and later spots a plane crashing in the desert. Soon, the cop uncovers a drug smuggling plot where murder, theft, Indian mysticism, and revenge intersect.

Based on the obvious noir influences of “The Thin Blue Line,” Errol Morris being tapped to direct a crime movie probably seemed like a natural choice. Yet it’s not Morris’ talent for moody tableau that is the most interesting thing about “The Dark Wind.” Instead, the director’s gift for capturing natural, quirky details of individuals is a great benefit to “The Dark Wind.” The Indian reservation setting adds a unique atmosphere to the film. The mixture of modern crimes and ancient beliefs makes for a compelling contrast. The script being smattered with dialogue in the Navajo language is a unique angle. The eccentricities and beliefs of the tribes add color to “The Dark Wind,” setting it apart from similar murder mystery procedural.

Disappointingly, the mystery at the center of “The Dark Wind” is not especially gripping. The inciting incident – Chee witnessing the plane crashing in the desert – doesn’t happen until a half hour into the movie. There are two subplots the protagonist is concerned with: The vandalization of the windmill and the theft of some beads. Anyone who has taken a Writing 101 course can guess that these subplots will tie into the central mystery soon enough. The storyline concerning drug smuggling struggles to make itself interesting to the viewer. A big problem with “The Dark Wind” is its tendency to drag when focused on the more typical crime movie elements. The various competing storylines aren’t quite tangled enough to qualify as convoluted but the script seems determined to distract viewers from how simple the story actually is.

How does Morris handle the transition from documentaries to traditional filmmaking? Well, that’s another problem with “The Dark Wind.” From its opening scene onward, “The Dark Wind” heavily features narration from Lou Diamond Philips. Long scenes devoted to him silently sleuthing out clues in the desert are accompanied by Philips’ voice-over. The interior monologue can be quite amusing and I suspect that many of the words are taken directly from Hillerman’s book. However, it’s not a very cinematic way to tell your story. Moreover, the narration can sometimes become overbearing, pushing out any room for the audiences’ opinions.

In some ways, Errol Morris’ visual presentation of the film works well. The opening credits are greeted by a bright red sun rolling over a desert mesa. A scene of Philips inside a shack, performing an ancient rite, is nicely shot, conveying a sense of mysticism and isolation. The discovery of the dismembered corpse is handled in a matter-of-fact way, which translates as relatively shocking. The film’s climax occurs during a rain storm and is dramatically lit, a series of Indian rituals taking place among some abandoned ruins. Despite clearly being a low budget film, “The Dark Wind” generates some memorable images.

Some of the time. Other times, “The Dark Wind” is incredibly stiff and bland to look at. Far too many scenes are devoted to characters standing around in rooms, talking to one another. Some times, the camera is entirely stationary, as someone enters a location, has a conversation, and then exits. Not helping matters is the DVD presentation. The print is washed out, not much better than a VHS. Meanwhile, the film is presented in full screen. You can tell that this clearly doesn’t represent the director’s original vision because boom mikes droop into frame multiple times. The boom mike appears often enough that it should’ve gotten a SAG card. The sometimes static presentation might be Morris’ fault, considering his documentaries occasionally share that future. But I can’t imagine a professional like Morris would make the rookie mistake of equipment stumbling on-screen.

Lou Diamond Philips has an easy-going charm that isn’t always well utilized in his lead performances. However, Jim Chee is a part that caters fantastically to his skills. Chee is not your typical movie cop. He doesn’t pull his gun until the last act and, even then, never discharges it. When shoot-outs occur, Chee is a captive, not a participant. While the narration is overbearing, Philips adapts to it incredibly well. When interacting with the normal people on the reservation, speaking Navajo or Hopi and relating to them on a person-to-person basis, Philips shines. The part is tailored to his abilities as an actor. If “The Dark Wind” works at all, it’s because of Lou.

“The Dark Wind” doesn’t have an especially loaded supporting cast, with few recognizable names in the credit. However, a few notable actors show up. Fred Ward plays Joe Leaphorn, Chee’s boss and another reoccurring character from Hillerman’s books. When busting Chee’s chops, in the way that police chiefs in movies tend to do, Ward is entertaining. However, he’s generally underutilized. Blake Clark is highly amusing as the Hopi officer Chee sometimes is paired with. He has a much more sarcastic tone to his performance, taking the Indian rites less seriously. Character actor Joe Karlan seems to be cast in a nothing part as Jake but eventually reveals himself to be important to the story. Karlen gets to utilize some unhinged energy, making for a memorable turn.

“The Dark Wind” doesn’t entirely work, as the script could’ve been tighter and the presentation is sometimes bland. However, a consistent tone and a strong cast makes for an interesting, mildly entertaining police thriller. How much of the final film is even Morris’ is debatable, as he apparently left the production before filming wrapped. Robert Redford disliked the movie. After this film's failure, he would eventually get his on-going series of Jim Chee movies, made for PBS’ “Mystery!” anthology. That it’s Errol Morris sole narrative feature so far is disappointing, as the film showed that the documentarian had the chops to make a traditional feature, even if the final product doesn’t hold together perfectly. [Grade: B-]

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