Hallucinatory haziness gives way to symbolic opaqueness in Winter In The Blood, an adaptation of James Welch’s seminal Native American novel about a twentysomething named Virgil First Raise (Chaske Spencer), who stumbles about his Montana hometown—and the outlying plains—in an incessant drunken stupor, a look of belligerent or maudlin confusion on his cut-up face. Introduced waking up in a roadside ditch after yet another night of boozing and fighting, Virgil is distraught about the fact that his wife Agnes (Julia Jones) has left him, and also taken the beloved gun he received years earlier from his father, John First Raise (Richard Ray Whitman). Yet both his anger and sorrow truly stem from the fact that he’s a “half-blood”—his grandmother’s husband was, apparently, a white man—and as such, an outcast in both the Caucasian and Native American worlds in which he travels.
Questions of identity course through Alex and Andrew Smith’s film, though only at the margins, as the directors primarily focus on their tale’s foggy fugue-state atmosphere, in which the present and the past are constantly colliding in unexpected and random ways. As a result of either his inebriation or his nostalgic misery, Virgil can’t go more than a few minutes at a time without recollecting some nugget from his past, usually one concerning his relationship with his father (a man who was kind and wise, but also bitter about losing land to the white man), or his camaraderie with his brother Mose (Yancey Hawley), or his longing for Agnes. Winter In The Blood depicts these ruminations through flashbacks that usually share some similarity to Virgil’s current circumstances. Yet despite their literal relationship to the character’s immediate situations (as when a fall in the present reminds him of an earlier, cataclysmic childhood tumble), the long-ago sequences remain oblique diversions that merely enhance the material’s aimless dreaminess.
Furthering this quality are Virgil’s drunken encounters with a white man (David Morse) who resembles a great hunter from a magazine, a bartender (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson) with whom he shares an attraction, a couple of random pursuers in suits, his mother’s new beau Lame Bull (Gary Farmer), and an aged wise man in the mountains (Saginaw Grant) who possesses the answers to the hero’s questions. Unfortunately, said questions remain indistinct throughout Winter In The Blood, which is so attuned to its protagonist’s intoxicated mental state that it captures a clear sense of his confusion but provides no articulate portrait of who he was, is, or wants to be. Cursed with a vague, rambling script and an equally indistinct lead performance, the film is a scattershot series of vignettes about self-definition that, ultimately, never coheres into a lucid whole.