- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

"Skins," the second feature of Chris Eyre, who made an affable directing debut with "Smoke Signals," makes a poor case for humoring the independent American cinema this weekend. Not to mention the American Indian independent cinema.

The principal setting of this misbegotten "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" parable is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, which provides the early episodes with a misleading promise of topicality and authenticity.

Mr. Eyre botches the possibilities within 40 minutes or so, leaving the movie in a prolonged downhill swoon as the emphasis shifts from naturalistic human interest and painful family conflict to polemical fantasy and grandstanding. Rudy Yellow Lodge, a reservation sheriff played by Eric Schweig, begins to despair of the social pathologies that plague his beat, which also happens to be his homeplace.

One of the principal eyesores and civic nuisances is his older brother, Mogie (Graham Greene), once a decorated soldier but now a terminal drunk and obnoxious loudmouth.

Flashbacks recall the men in their boyhood, when solidarity was easier to rally, sometimes in response to an abusive dad, whose bad example seems to have overtaken Mogie. Rudy's pride is understandably wounded by his brother's public boorishness, but his pity and affection predominate with the realization that Mogie is not long for this world.

The nature of a fraternal reconciliation in these circumstances, within a distinctive and evocative setting, ought to be enough to carry a movie to a modest but respectable conclusion. "Skins," however, veers off into vigilante bombast, accompanying Rudy as he takes night-stalking revenge on a pair of young assailants and torches a liquor store identified with reservation alcoholism.

We watch the ostensible hero become a disgrace to himself and his community, but it suits the prevailing system of fantasy to justify his crimes.

The arson caper results in a ludicrous form of overcompensation. Mogie happens to be hanging around when the store goes up in flames, so Rudy almost causes the death of his big brother. What can the boldly blundering lawman do to make amends? Nothing sane, of course. Just carry out a futile gesture of defiance hurling a bucket of red paint at that monument to American imperialism, Mount Rushmore.

Even this gesture fizzles, because it relies on special-effects shots that make the precise nature of the defacement hard to discern. In fact, you're not sure if anyone would notice unless Rudy made a point of going to the press and declaring his conversion to crime and guerrilla theater.

The timing may be fortunate, in a dreary sort of way. "Skins" has nothing for a mainstream public or a discriminating public, but it might pass for a rallying cry and poster movie among dissidents. Meanwhile, the film seems to suggest that the end of the reservation system at Pine Ridge is long overdue because it appears to discourage typical or thriving economic activity.

Mr. Eyre seems a bit oblivious to the disparities between what his movie champions and what it implies. Perhaps certain slum conditions are so picturesque and obsolete that improving them in any respect amounts to heresy.


TITLE: "Skins"

RATING: R (Frequent profanity and occasional graphic violence; fleeting vulgarity and clinical details about physical ailments; thematic preoccupation with crime, vice and vigilantism on an Indian reservation)

CREDITS: Directed by Chris Eyre. Screenplay by Jennifer D. Lyne, based on a novel by Adrian C. Louis.

RUNNING TIME: 85 minutes


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