Chris Eyre, director of the wonderful Smoke Signals, came up with another winner in his 2002 film, Skins, based on a novel by Adrian C. Louis. While this story contains its share of humor, it has a far more serious undertone than its predecessor.
THE OTHER AMERICAN HEROES
With that tagline, the film opens with scenes on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which a voiceover describes as being located in America’s poorest county. Brothers Rudy (Eric Schweig) and Mogie Yellow Lodge (Graham Greene) are Lakota Sioux who live on the reservation, though under different circumstances. Rudy is a cop on the tribal police force, while Mogie, a scarred Vietnam War hero and raging alcoholic, lives in poverty with his teenaged son. Rudy does his best to take care of them.
Flashbacks show the brothers, first as young boys, then as teens. The older Mogie protects Rudy after he is bitten by a spider (the Lakota trickster Iktomi, Mogie tells him), and later on from their abusive father. The spider appears to Rudy a number of times during the film.
When Rudy investigates some noises at an abandoned house he comes across the body of a young man. He pursues the apparent killer but trips and knocks himself out. All he managed to do was get a look at the guy’s sneakers.
Days later Rudy breaks up an argument between two punks, noticing that one of them is wearing sneakers similar to the pair on the guy he had chased. He follows them to the woods and, as they sit around and get drunk, overhears them bragging about the murder. With the trickster spider urging him on—not to mention his own anger and frustration over life on the Rez—he paints his face black and covers it with a stocking. Now a vigilante, Rudy shatters their kneecaps and leaves them screaming in agony. Later on, from their hospital beds, the pair will admit to the murder.
FIREWATER AND FIRE
Since alcohol is banned on the Rez, many Lakota travel across the state line into neighboring Nebraska to buy their booze. Mogie has a favorite outlet: a convenience store that makes a ton of money selling beer and other alcohol to the Native Americans. Rudy, who by this time we’ve seen handling one of countless domestic violence calls that take place on the Rez, again finds his rage boiling over. Putting on the black paint and the stocking, he drives to the store late at night and sets it on fire.
Soon after, in his cop guise, he returns to the scene of the fire and learns that someone had been burned. Guess what: Mogie, drunk as a skunk, had been on the roof, trying to break in so he could steal more booze. The burns are severe, and Rudy is devastated by what he unwittingly did to his brother.
Rudy visits a shaman in an effort to deal with the haunting spirit of the spider in general, and what he did to Mogie in particular. The shaman gives him some home remedies and also has him take part in a sweat lodge ceremony.
As Mogie recovers in the hospital from his burns, Rudy learns that his brother is dying from a diseased liver, among other things. After taking Mogie home, the tormented Rudy confesses to him that he started the fire. Mogie, who is pissed, says that Rudy can make it up to him by blowing the nose off George Washington’s face on Mount Rushmore. Rudy, of course, refuses. (Mount Rushmore, known to the Lakota Sioux as the Six Grandfathers, is sacred to the tribe, and the sculptures on its face are considered a travesty.)
Soon after, Mogie dies. He leaves a letter for the devastated Rudy, asking his brother to take care of his son. While still grieving, Rudy learns that the insurance money is going to allow the owners of the burned-out store to rebuild it twice as large, with drive-up windows and everything. Time for Iktomi, the trickster spider, to appear again…
No spoiler alert here, but I’ll just say that redemption is close at hand, and the ending is cheer-worthy. Skins is an excellent film that offers a revealing look at a blot on America, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation—not much different today than it was when the film debuted in 2002. And Graham Greene, an Academy Award-nominated actor (for Dances with Wolves), can always be counted on for an outstanding performance.