“Thunderheart” (1992) has something in common with today’s spiritual movements, which claim that soon everyone’s third eye will rapidly evolve and suddenly humans will have visions of angels sitting in the clouds. If that is indeed the case, it is going to present a major problem for atheists and nonbelievers. They’ll be stunned, dazed, and confused.
In “Thunderheart,” Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer), who is a young FBI agent, is brought in from Washington, D.C., to investigate the murder of an Oglala Sioux tribesman on the South Dakota Badlands-situated Bear Creek reservation.
Coming into contact with the powerful energy of a tribal medicine man, agent Levoi subsequently has many visions. He also witnesses human-to-deer shape-shifting, has prophetic dreams, and is visited by what might be a winged messenger. (It might also just be an owl.) At first, he’s considerably dazed and confused.
Ray Levoi has been assigned a homicide case connected to the revolutionary uprising of the radical ”traditionalist” group ARM (Aboriginal Rights Movement), who are in a minor civil war with the thuggish Guardians Of the Oglala Nation (GOON) leaders, who are allied with Washington.
Why did Levoi get assigned? Cynical FBI reasoning that his one-quarter Sioux blood will curry favor with the locals.
The locals that Levoi gets to know are 1) the traditionalist Walter Crow Horse (Graham Greene), a constantly wisecracking, hilariously bird-flipping-while-riding-by-on-his-motorcycle Oglala sheriff, 2) Maggie Eagle Bear (Sheila Tousey), a pretty, Dartmouth-educated, radical school teacher intent on reporting the uranium-drilling source of the community ground water being poisoned,
and 3) Grandpa Sam Reaches (Chief Ted Thin Elk), a folklore-filled tribal elder with a face like an ancient red-rock cliff, who likes to pretend he doesn’t speak English. These three characters alone make “Thunderheart” worth watching.
Other key figures are Levoi’s boss Frank Coutelle (Sam Shepard), a tough, seasoned, highly cynical Fed who does not suffer fools gladly,
and the antidisestablishmentarian Jack Milton (Fred Ward), a perennially shotgun-toting Sioux lawman in cahoots with the Feds, who maintains political power by meting out vigilante justice via his local GOON squad.
Coutelle, who’s been involved with the reservation for years, claims the murder is an open-and-shut case, and he blithely fingers traditionalist leader Jimmy Looks Twice (John Trudell) to be the killer.
Blood Will Out
As mentioned, Val Kilmer’s Levoi has Oglala blood in his veins but no knowledge of his heritage and history. He’s immediately derided with the nickname “Washington Redskin” by the tribesmen. But he’s also teasingly taken under the wing of the sheriff (and master-tracker) Crow Horse, who stirs Levoi’s roots-curiosity via a trail of breadcrumbs involving startlingly brilliant character insights and enticing sprinklings of folk wisdom.
Levoi’s tribal education and self-enlightenment also entail visits to Grandpa Reaches’s peeling-paint, relic-strewn trailer, whose insights are downright spooky and paradigm shifting for Levoi.
At first Levoi doesn’t want to believe, but as the evidence piles up, he starts his own clandestine investigation—the turning point being when Grandpa informs Levoi that he’s been summoned to the Badlands by the spirits to fulfill a mission, revealed to Levoi in the form of desert mirage-like visions of ancient tribal dances. Levoi ‘s spiritual Hero’s Journey of self-discovery eventually picks up the narrative of his previous incarnation, as a medicine man in that very region.
Hidden in Plain Sight
As a reservation-politics murder mystery, “Thunderheart” ultimately becomes too complex to comprehend, with no satisfying resolution to the ever-widening conspiracies Levoi unearths. Probably because Native American reservation problems, in general, don’t present easy solutions.
“Thunderheart” is at its best when accompanied by cliché but nevertheless effective eagle screams, overblown native flutes, peace pipes, rattles, and drums. It ties together in ways that whisper of a deep, organic logic, both the humanly visible as well as the existence of unseen, other-dimensional realities that were commonplace in early American tribal life.
Director Michael Apted builds worlds, cutting between the slum squalor of rez life and then back out to the stark beauty of the wild Badlands-moonscape desert, strewn with the occasional defunct 1940s vehicle. Grandpa’s cozy, oversized rabbit hutch of a trailer reveals a “third world” hiding in plain sight in the American heartland, as well as the ancient wisdoms America has lost.
Speaking of hiding in plain sight, it must also be mentioned that “Thunderheart” was the extremely liberal Robert De Niro’s first-ever TriBeCa production. As such, it’s probably safe to say that it romanticizes the pro-communism leanings by papering over the radicalism: To subtly infer that extreme social reform is close to lost Native American mysticism and spirituality and therefore has the moral high ground stems from a misunderstanding of the communist agenda.
But, ignoring momentarily the radicalism, it’s clear that before the nascent end times for these Native Americans, Levoi has reckoned with and come to acknowledge spiritual reality.
Director: Michael Apted
Starring: Val Kilmer, Sam Shepard, Graham Greene, Fred Ward, Fred Dalton Thompson, Sheila Tousey, Chief Ted Thin Elk
Running Time: 1 hour, 59 minutes
Release Date: April 3, 1992
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars