Errol Morris in Hillermanland

The one venture into fiction filmmaking by documentarian Errol Morris (Fog of War, Thin Blue Line) was the first film adaptation of a Tony Hillerman mystery, “The Dark Wind” (1991). It was shot on location with Navajo and Hopi technicians and extras by Morris’s usual cinematographer Stefan Czapsky.

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Hillerman supplied plots, and the intersection between murders and drug trafficking in The Dark Wind is very complicated and confusing, but his series of Navajo Tribal Police procedurals was character-driven more than plot-driven, with a major emphasis on Navajo (and in this instance, Hopi) beliefs about evil spirits and just plan evil (the dark wind).

At the start, Jim Chee (Lou Diamond Phillips), whose thoughts we hear in voiceovers (a departure from Hillerman’s third person) is new to the Tuba City station and on a boring stakeout for someone who is vandalizing windmills. He sees a small plane crash, runs to the scene, where he finds the pilot dead and a man in a suit with a Wigwam Motel card in his mouth. He hears, but does not see a truck driving away.

When a corrupt and sadistic pair of FBI (not DEA?) investigators arrive, Chee becomes a prime suspect of having made off with the cocaine. His boss (herein) Lt. Leaphorn (Fred Ward) sends him to liaison with a corpulent Hopi deputy, “Cowboy” Dashee (Gary Farmer). There is a corpse on Hopi territory with its fingertips and toetips hacked off, which is the m.o. of Navajo witches (skinwalkers).

And there is a burglary of pawned jeelry at the Burnt Water Trading Post. Of course, all these are collected and the motive that collects them is very hidden. And our dogged investigator will figure it all out, though getting roughed up a couple of times. Indeed, he is the character who spends the most time handcuffed during the movie (handcuffed by the federal officers).

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The movie seems true to the spirit and characters and setting of Hillerman’s novels. Much as I like Adam Beach, both in general and as Jim Chee in the three made-for-PBS Hillerman/Navajo mysteries in particular, I think that Phillips was better at bringing out the lonely, depressive side of Chee’s character. Beach seems a more extroverted, convivial, and self-confident person, even when bewildered and frustrated. Both excel in showing commitment to traditional belies and respect for the elders, and I like all four screen adaptations.

Apparently, the movie previewed badly, producer Robert Redford panicked and had someone else shoot the action sequences. The movie was not theatrically released, and images with mikes hanging into the shot that would have disappeared in the planned 1:1.85 ratio are sometimes visible. No final “release print” was made, and the DVD was made from the camera original.

Phillips (who is 1/8th Cherokee and also of Spanish, Scottish/Irish, Chinese, Filipino, Hawaiian descent, born on a US naval base in the Philippines) was outstanding as the lead in “La Bamba” (1987), and in supporting roles in “Stand and Deliver” (1988), and “Courage Under Fire” (1996), and has had work, though less of a carree than I think he he should have. Farmer was the star of the first great Native American movie, “Pow Wow Highway” (1989) and for me was the best part of Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” (1995). As his weight continues to increase, he became the boss of both Leaphorn and Chee, Capt. Largo, in the three PBS Hillerman adaptations.

 

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

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