In Smoke Signals, director Chris Erye and writer Sherman Alexie give us a realistic and moving view of Native Americans. They drop the stereotypes and truthfully portray Native Americans as regular people full of hopes and dreams, facing tough decisions and coping with loss. Erye and Alexie also examine the stereotypes and racism they face, as well as the inner struggle each faces dealing with the world.
The movie opens with an incident that connects our two main characters for life. In Coeur d'Alene, Idaho on Independence Day 1976, Arnold Joseph (Gary Farmer) saved the life of Thomas (Evan Adams) as both of his parents perished in a horrible fire. Now orphaned, Thomas is raised by his grandmother and tries to connect with those around him through storytelling. Also rescued from the fire is Arnold Joseph's son, Victor (Adam Beach).
Erye skillfully uses a series of flashbacks mixed with modern day action to explain the relationship between Thomas and Victor. He shows us the friendship shared by the two until a guilt-ridden Arnold Joseph leaves his family for Arizona. On that day, young Thomas (Simon Baker) suggests it is young Victor's (Cody Lightning) fault that his father has left. Victor never forgives Thomas until his mother (Tantoo Cardinal) receives a call from Arnold Joseph's neighbor (Irene Bedard) informing her that his father has died.
Victor wants to travel to Arizona to claim his father's remains, but cannot afford a bus ticket. Although they have grown apart, Thomas agrees to lend him the money, but with the condition that they go together. Thomas always had a strong relationship with the man who saved his life, and wishes to say good-bye with his old friend.
The resulting movie becomes one of the best buddy movies I have seen in a long time. Unlike the classic Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis buddy pictures, this one is driven by Alexie's sharp Tarrantino-like dialogue instead of zany situation comedy. During the trip, we learn about the racism Victor and Thomas face as they encounter others filled with hate.
Not only do Victor and Thomas face hate as they leave the reservation for the first time in their lives, but they are burdened by conflicting ideas of how they should act and portray themselves. One of the best scenes of the movie results when Victor instructs Thomas how he should act or else, "the white man will run all over you." Victor tells Thomas he must abandon his trademark suit and braids for long flowing locks and a stoic appearance. Thomas transforms himself into a warrior, but retains his nerdy demeanor, realizing that he doesn't want to be a stereotype.
In Arizona, Thomas and Victor learn about the rehabilitated Arnold Joseph. He gave up drinking and loved his son from afar. Arnold's neighbor, Suzy Song, explains why he left Victor and his mother and the truth behind the most important incident in Victor and Thomas' lives.
The picture is full of excellent performances. Gary Farmer shines as the alcoholic and remorseful Arnold Joseph. Farmer is excellent as we slowly watch him deteriorate and become consumed with guilt. Adam Beach is fabulous as the emotionally withdrawn and heartbroken Victor. He fills the character full of rage and hurt. Evan Adams should have been nominated for an Oscar for his performance as the "Dances with Wolves"-loving, mystical, nerdy Thomas. He creates an appealing and enduring character that you hope will reappear in other work by Eyre and Alexie.
Why was this movie released in June of 1998?!?!?!? Unfortunately, this excellent movie would have been better served if it were released in the fall or winter like most Oscar contenders. That competition would have been more appropriate than facing Saving Private Ryan, Armageddon and Something About Mary. The movie was awarded the Audience Award and the Filmmaker's Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, and could have made a strong Oscar showing if released at a better time.
Chris Eyre does an excellent job helming the first movie by Native Americans about Native Americans. Unfortunately, the movie has some fantastic cinematography that is lost on the small screen. Although this movie never registered on the national radar screen, Eyre has great potential and will be heard from as he makes more movies. Fortunately for us, this movie is available on video, allowing us the opportunity to enjoy this hidden gem.
Smoke Signals: A-
Directed by Chris Eyre
Screenplay by Sherman Alexie
Based on the book "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" by Sherman Alexie
Music by BC Smith
Victor . Adam Beach
Thomas .. Evan Adams
Suzy Song .. Irene Bedard
Arnold Joseph Gary Farmer
Arlene Joseph Tantoo Cardinal
Young Victor . Cody Lightning
Young Thomas .. Simon Baker
Cathy . Cynthia Geary
Copyright 1999 - Waffle Movies