FOUR STARS - Encouraging
The wounds of a father yield a closely-held pain most sons are unable to explain. The rage, the silence, the disappointments, the distance all weave together a complex pattern which makes one’s masculinity both a blessing and a curse.
Due to the difficulty most of us have in trying to talk about these wounds, we often feel as though our fathers and our experiences are fatally unique. Living behind walls of stoic or hectic personas, we seldom realize the universal nature of father-son relationships or reach out to one another to help heal the wounds. But director Chris Eyre has created a healing balm for our masculine souls in the form of the film: “Smoke Signals.”
Billed as the first Native American film written, directed, co-produced and acted by American Indians, “Smoke Signals” was the audience favorite at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Its self-deprecating humor and honest insight is a joy to watch and enlightens us concerning one tribe of American Indians in today’s world.
Set within the Coer d’Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho, the story focuses on the lives of two young men, Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams). Victor and Thomas are joined at birth when a tragic fire accidentally causes the fiery death of Thomas’ parents. Victor’s father, Arnold (Gary Farmer), saves Thomas’ life by catching him after his parents throw him from a second floor window. This becomes the defining moment of Arnold’s life and a symbol of his shame as he hides the fact that he accidentally started the fire.
Imprisoned by the grip of alcohol, Arnold abuses his son Victor. Through a weaving of the images of his childhood and his present life as a young adult, we watch the violence escalate as the haunted father is unable to free himself of his pain or the alcohol he uses to subdue it. The effect on Victor is to create a volcano of anger beneath a chosen stoic, exterior of a warrior.
We also observe the impact of a father’s absence on the man who was orphaned by the fiery accident. Thomas is raised by a grandmother who has no idea of masculinity and raises Thomas as a chatty, suit-wearing, braided, pig-tailed man who is repulsive to Victor and Arnold. Though both express disdain and ridicule toward him, Thomas’ connection to them is so powerful that he is either naive or chooses to ignore their behaviors.
The haunting pain of Arnold eventually causes him to desert Victor and his mother, Arlene (Tantoo Cardinal) when Victor is 12 years old. This departure comes in part when Victor’s mother sees the seething pain within Victor’s heart as he takes the beer bottles the morning after a night of drunken partying and begins throwing them against the back of his father’s pickup. Arlene angrily declares that the drinking “has got to stop.”
This situation illustrates a normal reaction of most to the deep injuries within men’s souls. The “acting out” behaviors become the focus of the battle and the wounds beneath those symptoms are ignored or misunderstood. The result of Arlene’s angry declaration is not that Arnold opens up and shares his pain, but he angrily reacts by leaving the family and living in a barren, desert reservation near Phoenix.
For 10 years, Victor and Thomas do not see the man who is the key to their own inward pain and loss.
When they receive word that Arnold has died, Thomas gives his life savings in his jar of coins to purchase the bus tickets for Victor and him to go and claim his remains. This is the beginning of their healing.
Like many journeys in search of a love lost, Victor and Thomas are forced on this journey to face the impact of Arnold’s actions on their lives. As they reflect on each other’s childhood, they are aided by their discovery of each other’s defenses.
The circle is complete, when they visit Arnold’s Arizona home as adults, and it is only here, adult to adult, that forgiveness begins to take hold.
“Smoke Signals” is a powerful film of masculine issues which can speak to both men and women about who we are. The closing poem of the film, “Forgiving our Fathers” is worth the price of admission as the image of a raging river accompanies the words of universal experiences we all face with our fathers.