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[whitespace] Graham Greene He Who Laughs Last: Graham Greene chortles at his own mischief in Chris Eyre's smart, funny 'Skins.'


'Skins' tells an intelligent and touching story of life on the rez

By Richard von Busack

THE TITLE Skins, short for "Redskins," is a welcome bounce back for the Native American film after the aggravating The Business of Fancydancing. Sherman Alexie, who wrote and directed Business, deserves his fame as a poet, but he hasn't learned the craft of making people talk onscreen. Skins' director, Chris Eyre, whose last film was the Alexie-scripted Smoke Signals, makes Skins less like a poem and more like an investigation. Moreover, he has a shrewd script by Jennifer Lyne, from Adrian C. Louis' novel.

Some details do mix in the mind with the bathetic Follow Me Home, which focused on a similar mission of politically inspired vandalism: a group of mixed-raced artists planning to paint the White House rainbow-colored. But once again, Skins is at a higher level of sophistication, because the filmmakers understand vandalism for what it is: a satisfying prank. Mogie Yellow Lodge (Native American actor Graham Greene), a drunken ruin of a powerful man, mulls over blowing the nose off George Washington on Mount Rushmore. It would be payback for the Wounded Knee massacre of 1890: "Maybe it'll give the people a good laugh, that's what they need."

Overhearing this plan is Mogie's little brother, Lt. Rudy Yellowlodge (Eric Schweig), who vainly tries to keep peace on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The reservation sits on land 60 miles (as the crow flies) from Mount Rushmore. There, four presidents are carved into the Lakota's sacred Black Hills, almost as a rebuke. Sacred thought the land is, it's not really meant for year-round human habitation. On paydays, Indians seeking pain relief pour across the state line into the one-road town of Whiteclay, Neb., where Mogie (Greene) hangs out soaking up malt liquor. Rudy, feeling impotent, decides to mask himself and turn vigilante. He beats up a couple of murderous teenagers and torches a liquor store that's poisoning his people. What he unleashes in himself only worsens matters.

Skins has a couple of points where Eyre's emphasis is in doubt, as if the editing were off. What's going through that white kid's mind when he sees a drunken Sioux come in to buy more malt liquor? Those two thug teenagers, whom Rudy puts into the hospital, do they recognize the cop when he visits and are they too smart to say anything, because he's the police? We don't get a clue. And the consequence of filming on the rez is that Eyre had to use a lot of nonprofessional actors, who sometimes aren't always on the mark.

However, Greene, who was nominated for an Oscar for Dances With Wolves, is delightfully vigorous. He has an obscene, raspy chuckle like the comedian Jonathan Winters. He's lovable because he isn't pathetic; his clownishness has a purpose. We're not laughing at the funny, drunken Indian; from what we see of his surroundings and his chances, his refusal to clean up has its own kind of harsh, existential logic.

Skins (R; 90 min.), directed by Chris Eyre, written by Jennifer D. Lyne, based on the novel by Adrian C. Louis, photographed by Stephen Kazmierski and starring Graham Greene and Eric Scheig, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the September 26-October 2, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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