Smoke Signals (1998) Movie Review

If you’re wondering why there haven’t been more movies like “Smoke Signals”, I’m here to set your mind at ease. The reason is a simple one: because if anyone other than the filmmakers responsible for “Signals” attempted to make a movie like it, they would be crucified ten times to Sunday. Consider the film itself, which celebrates the idea of “being Indian” as much as it criticizes it. Now could you imagine anyone other than Chris Eyre, Sherman Alexie, and the cast (all of whom are of Native American ancestry) making a film like “Smoke Signals”? My God, I can’t even imagine what the protest signs would look like!

“Smoke Signals” is written by famous Indian writer Sherman Alexie and stars Adam Beach (“Windtalkers”) as Victor, a young Indian living on a reservation who makes a trip to pick up his father’s ashes in another state. The father, Arnold (Gary Farmer), had run out on the family years ago, leaving Victor and his mother Arlene (Tantoo Cardinal) to fend for themselves. With funds provided by his oddball friend Thomas (Evan Adams), Victor sets off to find his father, and in the process, himself. (Note that since the film shows no qualms about calling its Native American characters “Indians”, I will do the same, so don’t send emails.)

There is a harshness and brutal honesty to “Smoke Signals” that I wasn’t prepared for. From everything I’ve heard about the movie, and even going by the boxcover, this didn’t look or sound like a serious drama intent on shedding light on life on an Indian reservation, warts and all. But that’s exactly what “Smoke Signals” does, and as a result Indians are shown as addicted to the bottle as they are to the bitterness at their lot in life, not to mention their almost paranoid disdain for “the white people” beyond the reservation borders. Now do you understand when I say that no other filmmakers would even dare make a movie like this?

Although the film provides unflinching frankness about modern day Indians, that doesn’t mean it’s without humor. It is, in fact, sometimes very funny, although not in the way that makes one laugh out loud. Not much of “Smoke Signals” made me laugh out loud; even the comedy comes at the expense of something, or some group of people, rather it is the Indians themselves or the “rest of the United States”. Some of the comedy is provided by the Thomas character, who has an uncanny ability to be oblivious to the pain of his friend Victor, or else he wouldn’t keep bringing up Arnold’s sudden abandonment of his family as if he was discussing the weather.

Later in the film, Irene Bedard enters the scene as Arnold’s neighbor and sometimes lover. It’s Irene’s Suzy Song that Arnold had confessed all of his sins to, including a dark secret Arnold had been harboring for over two decades. Through Suzy, who actually knows more about Arnold than Victor did, the younger Joseph comes to accept that his father’s abandonment wasn’t a decision, but just something he “didn’t mean to do”. Of course the reason behind Arnold’s abandonment is less important than Victor’s acceptance of it, because it’s Victor who must continue on with life, and it’s his choices from this moment on that matters.

There’s a lot to like about “Smoke Signals”, including the fact that its themes are universal, even though the Indian reservation definitely adds color to the storytelling. If there is one weakness in the screenplay, it’s that once Alexie sends his two male leads off the reservation the script starts to get a little wobbly. There is a scene on a bus where a man with “racist redneck” written all over his forehead takes over Victor and Thomas’ seat for no particular reason. If Alexie was going to introduce confrontation between Indians and the rest of America, couldn’t he have found a more realistic scenario?

The most accomplished aspect of “Smoke Signals” is the direction by Chris Eyre, who provides seamless transition whenever the film flashes back to the past. This technique may also have been influenced by the fact that the reservation rarely changes, so that when the film flashes back from the “present” to the “past”, there’s absolutely no difference in the background, the dress, or the people (except for the age of the leads, of course).

Eyre has essentially shot the Indian reservation as if it existed in a time bubble where progress is nonexistent. Like its lead character, the reservation is mired in the past and incapable of moving on. It’s only when Victor makes the choice to move on that he gives himself a fighting chance at survival. Until then, he, like the reservation, is hopelessly mired in a past long lost.

Chris Eyre (director) / Sherman Alexie (screenplay)
CAST: Adam Beach …. Victor Joseph
Evan Adams …. Thomas Builds-the-Fire
Irene Bedard …. Suzy Song
Gary Farmer …. Arnold Joseph
Tantoo Cardinal …. Arlene Joseph

Buy Smoke Signals on DVD