A review of “Skins” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: ***

Rating: R for graphic images, language

Run Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

 

 

The statistics pouring in from the Native American Nation are less than inspiring.  A seventy percent unemployment rate.  Nine times the national average in deaths from alcohol related diseases. “Skins” is a genuine glimpse into an inscrutable culture that’s virtually screaming for survival.

Eric Schweig is the enigmatic Rudy Yellow Lodge, an unassailable Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (South Dakota) tribal cop who’s taking the law into his own hands.  Wrestling with the beliefs of his native spiritual world, an abiding love for his alcoholic brother (Graham Greene as Mogie) and a deep sense of community, Rudy has declared himself a true vigilante. 

His Ramboesque tactics are self-imposed challenges en route to a questionable solution. When local toughs murder one of their own, Rudy teaches them a permanent lesson with the bone-crunching end of a Louisville Slugger. His impromptu attempts at cleaning up the Reservation are fueled by rage at the system, and the wasted lives he sees strewn about the neighborhood. When Rudy’s disgust with his brother’s drunken antics reaches an emotional pitch, the consequences are tragic for all concerned.

“Skins” is a movie with a message.  As a travelogue, it speaks volumes about the abject poverty of third-world poor American Indian reservations, and the frustrations externalized in drink and domestic violence.  The story is subtly complex and manipulative – a shot to the gut of dismal displays of antagonism and dysfunction.  Undercurrents of post-war (Vietnam) stress and painful family histories are kept in understated and unexplained form.

Allow me to sing the praises of Schweig, a sexy, enigmatic bear of a man (did I mention sexy?) whose comfort with himself and discomfort with the disintegration of his people is tangible.  With Schweig on the screen, I can forgive the amateurish quality of the script and the unskilled performances of his co-stars, save for the legendary Greene, who offers a touching turn as a drunk with a very big heart (to compensate for a badly decaying liver).

Director Chris Eyre (“Smoke Signals”), himself of Cheyenne-Arapaho Native American descent, has made his point.  It’s high time we start listening.