As Winter in the Blood opens, a young Blackfoot Indian named Virgil First Raise (Chaske Spencer) finds himself piss-ass drunk in a ditch, staggering toward a hallucination of his dead father—who had himself died in a ditch 10 years before. Virgil's state only worsens from there. First he learns that his wife, Agnes, has "gone to town" to bargain for a drink or two with his rifle. When he sets out to reclaim the rifle—never mind about the girl—he encounters the cagey "Airplane Man," has a drunken rendezvous with a barmaid and winds up with lots of bloodied body parts. Based on the 1974 novel by James Welch and directed by Missoula, Mont., brothers Alex and Andrew Smith, Winter in the Blood follows Virgil as he searches for answers to his traumatic past and seeks meaning for his pained present. The plot is nuanced and layered, much like its protagonist, who narrates the film in voice-over: "To be a human is not easy. I guess to be an Indian is not easy." Though the film fails the Bechdel test—aside from the yellow-toothed Agnes, the only other woman we meet is a pathetic one-night stand who gets slapped in the face—Winter in the Blood successfully makes a challenging character sympathetic without collapsing into sentimentality.
Critic's Grade: A-
SEE IT: Winter in the Blood is at NW Film Center's Whitsell Auditorium. 7 pm Wednesday and Sunday, April 23 and 27.