In one of Thunderbird’s many striking images, a woman’s body is discovered in a forest with what looks like a mask of congealed red wax covering her entire head. Within minutes, we know that we’re in for a better-than-average ride, in this case a superb low-budget film that falls somewhere between True Detective and the Canadian environmental thriller Clearcut (1991).
Like that much-admired (if little seen) movie, Thunderbird borrows from First Nations legend to leave the viewer unsure if the membrane between material reality and the spirit world has been breached.
“I remember, as a kid, meeting some elders and hearing them tell stories as if they were factual truths, like these were real creatures and that our world intersects with the supernatural world,” says writer-director Nicholas Treeshin. “That always stuck with me.”
Shot in Port Hardy, the film’s roots can be traced back to Treeshin’s experiences growing up in Yellowknife and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. There, he says, “I saw firsthand the worst of the worst prejudice and racism and how it divides people.” Thunderbird doesn’t play coy with this. Its principal character (played with remarkable assurance by newcomer Colten Wilke) is a troubled white loner whose relationship with the Indigenous community is mutually hostile.
“If the character would have been some super good-looking Hollywood guy, I don’t think I could have done it,” says Treeshin. “He’s not really an antihero, but we’re following a character that we’re not really sure that we like right away.” He’s aided by a cop (Natalie Brown) dismayed by the racial tension on all sides. Meanwhile, she’s not sure if she’s tracking a ritualistic serial killer, something much weirder, or both.
Fearing charges of cultural appropriation (“It kept me up many a night”), Treeshin turned to the Coast Salish for guidance with the script and production. The narrative risks he takes are equally bold, with all departments (art direction in particular) rising to the standards set by its first-time director. Too much Canadian film feels like a race to the finish line. Thunderbird’s attention to craft and detail sets it apart, along with Treeshin’s storytelling confidence and comfort with ambiguity.
“There’s a whole lot of shit in Blade Runner that’s never explained and I just kinda like that,” he says. “To me, tone is everything. If the tone is great, as a moviegoer, I’m along for the ride.”
Thunderbird screens at the Village 8 Cinemas next Thursday and Saturday (December 5 and 7)