Director: Gina Gammell and Riley Keough | Script: Franklin Sioux Bob, Bill Reddy, Gina Gammell and Riley Keough | Cast: Jojo Bapteise Whiting (Bill), LaDainian Crazy Thunder (Matho), Jesse Schmockel (Echo), Sprague Hollander (Tim), Wilma Colhoff (Mama), Anjeliq Aurora (Carly), Jessica Poor Bear (Coltina), ea | Time to play: 115 minutes | Year: 2022
In a beautiful key scene in war pony Redbone’s song Come and Get Your Love sets the tone. This band of Native American and Latino musicians blended 1970s pop and soul music with traditional Native American musical elements. Very appropriate for the two main characters of war pony, who try (to survive) to live in the here and now. His community is burdened by the consequences of the history of genocide and oppression of the indigenous population. In this beautiful but also heartbreaking drama, this is reflected in poverty, unemployment and drug addiction.
Young Bill and teenage Matho belong to the Oglala Lakota, an indigenous people who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the poorest reservation in the United States, on the border between South Dakota and Nebraska. Their lives intersect from time to time, but war pony it mainly consists of two separate stories connected by theme, location, and other parallels. First-time directors Gina Gammell and Riley Keough tell the stories calmly, with an attention to detail and a sense of nuance. The naturalistic style is reminiscent of Andrea Arnold, the director of american honey in which Keough did not have a supporting role.
Keough and Gammell, along with two Native American friends, wrote the script. war pony and he worked closely with the residents of the Pine Ridge reservation to make the film as authentic as possible. That apparently worked. That makes the portrait of life there even more moving. Matho’s ambition is, on the one hand, to kiss a girl, something that boys his age all over the world share with him. On the other hand, he wants to become a drug dealer just like his father. Methamphetamine is especially popular.
The charismatic Bill is ten years older and mainly wants to make money legally. He already has two young children, with two different women, while he still lives with his mother. And yet he is a hopeless optimist who tries to make a living with everything from raising dogs to doing odd jobs for wealthy white turkey farmer Tim, who lives on a large estate on the outskirts of the reservation. Tim’s situation painfully exposes the complex relationship between the white American and the Oglala Lakota.
Tim gives Bill a job, but Bill soon has to do all sorts of things Tim wants, including being a driver for married Tim’s ‘paid girlfriends’. Him because he says that he also loves Native Americans that way. However, they remain objects to him, over which he can exercise power with his money. He has paintings hanging in his home and office, but these are cliché images of Native Americans as noble savages in earlier centuries, still hunting bison with bows and arrows, for example.
The bison also appears in Bill and Matho’s visions. The animal is an important symbol to many Native American peoples, for whom the beast was an important food source that was almost completely wiped out by white hunters in the late 19th century. Not only for sport, but also to deprive these peoples of the opportunity to provide themselves with meat. The fact that Bill and Matho see this beast suddenly appear in the reserve at certain times as some sort of mythical vision also connects them symbolically to this past and to the visionary tradition of their people.
In this way, past and present, tradition and modernity come together war pony. Keough, Gammell and company highlight the distressing social problems of the reservation and their impact on the lives of the young people who grow up there. But occasionally they also accompany Bill’s infectious and somewhat hopeful optimism, as in the beautiful final scenes.