Film Review: Smoke Signals (1998)

Native American Chris Eyre's film takes a funny and poignant look at two kinds of loss
Smoke Signals (film)

Smoke Signals (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unfortunately, it is rare to find films with all Native American casts and it’s especially rare to find one that has reached anything approaching a wide release. That’s why the 1998 indie film Smoke Signals (directed by Chris Eyre), based on Sherman Alexie’s book The Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, is such a pleasant surprise. It is an intimate yet sprawling movie that deals with issues of family, identity and loss that I find myself coming back to again and again over the years.

In the film we meet the character of Victor, who is played by Adam Beach. Victor is a young man living on the reservation, whose anger over his father’s abandonment has never healed. Victor’s memories of his father (Arnold) are bitter, as he remembers him as an alcoholic who fought with his mother and abandoned him and his mother when he was only a boy. On that fateful day when he left, Victor ran after the car for as long as he could.

So when news reaches the reservation that Arnold has died, he and Thomas set off to Arizona to retrieve his ashes. The result is not only a road trip but a journey of bonding, healing and self-discovery.

Victor continues to struggle with his lost relationship with Arnold; this struggle often manifests itself in anger and resentment, which is sometimes directed at the character of the hapless and eminently positive Thomas. Thomas reminds Victor of the night Arnold saved him from a fire that killed Thomas’s parents. In Thomas’s gentle storytelling, Arnold was a hero.

“It is an intimate yet sprawling movie that deals with issues of family, identity and loss that I find myself coming back to again and again over the years.”

The story becomes more complicated when the two arrive at the Arizona trailer Arnold was living in during the years prior to his death. Arnold’s neighbor and close friend, Suzie (Irene Bedard), recounts how the memory of that fire haunted Arnold over the years—namely because he was the one who had caused it in a drunken stupor. Arnold always missed his son; he always wanted to go back, but felt that he couldn’t. While this darkens Thomas’s glowing portrayal of Arnold, the new understanding of the man simultaneously frees Victor from his long-held bitterness.

Sherman Alexie Native American Smoke Signals

Sherman Alexie. Photo credit: umass.edu

We see this most clearly in a scene after they’ve left the trailer, when they witness a serious accident that injures a young woman. As Thomas and another bystander tend to the woman, Victor declares that he’s going for help. A man tells him he’s crazy, that it’s twenty miles to the nearest town. Victor takes off his jacket and begins running.

The catharsis that Victor experiences on this good Samaritan run, including flashbacks to his young self running after Arnold’s car, is the final step in his grieving process; not necessarily of his grief for his father’s death, but his grief for not having his father in his life, for their missing relationship. It’s a beautiful story, particular to the reservation but universal in its themes of losing a loved one and coping with death. And anyone who can appreciate these themes should definitely watch this movie.

Watch the trailer below:

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