Heartfelt Indian Horse confines itself to one dimension
Starring Forrest Goodluck. In English and Ojibwa, with English subtitles. Rated 14A
Indian Horse is a heartfelt, well-acted, and somewhat one-dimensional effort containing a story that needs to be told right now.
Executive-produced by Clint Eastwood and directed by Stephen Campanelli (who has operated cameras for many of Clint’s movies), the movie was adapted by Vancouver playwright Dennis Foon from an award-winning, semiautobiographical novel by the late Richard Wagamese. Its story centres on Saul Indian Horse, separated from his parents in 1959 and taken to a residential school, to “have the Indian drummed out of him”, as someone gleefully puts it.
Saul is played by three actors, all good. Sladen Peltier is the six-year-old version, shocked to see his relatives denigrated and his language taken away. Sanctioned by the Canadian government, these so-called schools were slave-labour camps, a church-run form of slow ethnic cleansing. The Dr. Mengele we meet is Father Quinney (veteran Michael Murphy), assisted by the mulish Sister Sara (Jill Frappier), who compound their sins by pretending that they are saving souls while destroying spirit and flesh.
Saul has savvy survival skills, however, and his eagerness to please is noted by a youngish reformer called Father Gaston (Michiel Huisman, of Treme and Game of Thrones). When the priest sees his interest in hockey, Gaston makes it possible for Saul to play “the white man’s game”. By the time Saul hits his teens (and is played by Forrest Goodluck), it’s clear that the kid has real talent.
Eventually, our postadolescent protagonist (Ajuawak Kapashesit) is able to leave and, through the sponsorship of a semi-empathetic coach (Weeds’ Martin Donovan), gets a shot at pro sports. Thanks to the flashback-laden structure of the movie—burdened by repetition and thudding sound effects—we know right away that things won’t really work out for Saul. The filmmakers stay architecturally true to the book, while missing its subtler colours. This means keeping a last-act revelation that, aside from being pretty obvious stuff, comes across as overly manipulative, requiring the narrator to hold back a trauma he has already lived with for much of his life.
Told entirely in the first person, the book conveys a much fuller character than the alcohol-sodden man we meet near the start of the movie. The Saul on paper eventually becomes fascinated by books and music, obsessively playing Bill Evans and Coltrane cassettes while crisscrossing Canada by car, in search of work and his true identity. We don’t quite meet that fellow, but at least the movie reaches an ending more redemptive than what the author himself experienced.