Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Smart Epic About "Going Native" In The 1860s: Dances With Wolves Satisfies.

The Good: Surprisingly funny, Engaging plot, Good character development, Decent acting, Great DVD bonus features
The Bad: A few narrative conceits, Minutia
The Basics: An exceptional film with a few wrinkles, Dances With Wolves is epic and appears on DVD with an incredible volume of bonus features.

It is a rare thing these days for me to find a film that I encounter and enjoy that contains voice-overs. I am generally sick of voice-overs in television and film and if a director is good at what they are doing, a film or television show ought not to require narration (to wit, viewers of Sex & The City would pretty much figure out Samantha was at the other end of town having sex when it pops up on screen without Sarah Jessica Parker's voice telling viewers that's what they're seeing). I mention this at the outset of my review of Dances With Wolves because the film includes voice-over and they are not at all intrusive or stupid and they make the story feel even more epic. Because the protagonist in the film is writing in a journal, it's nice for viewers to know what his thoughts are. As well, most of the voice-overs fill in gaps in action between scenes and that works well as a transition tool.

That said, when I sat down for the almost-four hour epic that is Dances With Wolves, I knew almost nothing about it, save that it was very long, dealt with frontier (America) politics and culture and was a winner of the Best Picture Oscar. What I was entirely unprepared for was how funny the movie was. At its outset, Dances With Wolves is remarkably funny with esoteric characters, slapstick comedy and it has the effect of being disarmingly funny, much like The West Wing (reviewed here!). Just as when people talk about The West Wing, they seldom mention how funny it actually is, so too is Dances With Wolves, at least at the beginning.

As is my usual, this film is based upon a novel, but I've not read the novel so this is purely a review of the film Dances With Wolves. As well, considering that novelist Michael Blake also wrote the screenplay, it seems reasonable that he was thorough in translating the essential aspects of the story into the movie.

In 1863 in Tennessee, John Dunbar is fighting for the Union and during a siege he acts as a decoy. By distracting the besieging Confederates, Dunbar helps the Union forces prevail and despite his wounds, he is rehabilitated and sent westward. Sent to resupply and join the force holding Fort Sedgewick, Dunbar goes west and arrives at the dilapidated fort shortly after the officers there desert from lack of supplies. Dunbar dutifully restores the fort and even makes a companion with a wolf he names Two Socks. But one day while bathing, he discovers a Sioux trying to steal his horse. Scared off, a group of Sioux girls attempt to take the horse and soon thereafter another party of Sioux tries to make off with Dunbar's loyal horse.

Restless about the raids, Dunbar rides to meet the Sioux, in the process finding a woman wounded. In her grief, the woman attempted suicide and Dunbar rescues her, taking her back to the Sioux and in the process insinuating to them that he is not a threat. After that, the tribe's spiritual leader, Kicking Bird, and lead warrior, Wind In His Hair, begin visiting Dunbar and they slowly begin communicating. The communication goes smoother when they are joined by Stands With A Fist, the woman Dunbar rescued. As they learn to communicate, they bond over their mutual search for buffalo and their desire to get along. But as the neighboring Pawnee threaten the Sioux, Dunbar - known among the Sioux as Dances With Wolves - chooses to stand with them and prevent them - or the U.S. expansion - from changing their way of life.

Dances With Wolves is a big, long film with only a few bad shots in the entire movie. The strength of the film is that it truly takes the time to develop and it does so in a decent way with a reasonable sense of pace. So, at the halfway point (there is an intermission on DVD, after which the viewer must flip the disc) when Dunbar complains about feeling bored, the viewer does not feel his boredom. Instead, there is a sense that the story is going somewhere and the viewer empathizes with Dunbar's frustration over the communications gap.

The only other real gripe I have with the film is the predictability of certain elements in it. The moment Stands With A Fist enters the story, the viewer knows they will likely end up together as they are the only two single white people in the film. While this initially annoyed me, the fact that it is addressed within the narrative, including a tongue-in-cheek reference to them being meant for one another because they are both white, makes up for it. As well, there are minor narrative nits, like Stands With A Fist having a flashback to reveal her backstory which included elements she could not possibly have seen.

That said, Dances With Wolves is a brilliant film. It is exceptionally rare that a film takes the time to explore differences in communication. In fact, outside the television episode "Darmok," I cannot recall seeing a work where the process of two people trying to understand one another was so realistically portrayed. And once the language barrier is broken, the story still develops with cultural differences still coming up and being highlighted. The cultural differences between Dunbar and the Sioux are intriguing, but the movie is smart enough to include universal elements that make it more than just a story about an American and Native Americans. So, for example, there is a pretty universal sense of humor and fun to the moment when the girls in the tribe try to play a prank on Dances With Wolves and Stands With A Fist by closing a smoke flap on the tent they are sharing to lure them out.

Conversely, the action sequences are presented with surprising clarity, and credit for that goes to director Kevin Costner. Costner makes the visual sense of Dances With Wolves powerful and clear. Instead of just showing innumerable Western landscapes, Costner keeps the visual storytelling tight. In fight sequences, the sides are clear and the action happens in a way that the viewer can easily see what is going on. Those troubled by recent films where everything happens too quickly to follow will be pleased by the visual sensibility of Dances With Wolves.

But what Costner deserves real credit for as a director is capturing the subtle facial expressions of the actors in the film. Costner captures himself looking guilty or loving quite well, but there is a moment in the film when Graham Greene's face falls and Costner captures the full range of understanding that crosses his visage. It is, truly, a perfect moment and Costner manages to catch it. This is not just a credit to Costner, but to Greene's acting. He is flawless as the medicine man, Kicking Bird. And while he has the whole "stoic Indian" routine down, some of his best moments come when he portrays Kicking Bird as patient, loving and intuitive.

Also playing opposite Costner is Mary McDonnell, who does a remarkably good job of playing an assimilated American. In her earliest scenes, she seems just like any of the Sioux women, her acting is so flawless and professional. When she begins to speak English, her broken English is convincing and she sounds like a person who is only speaking English based on memories from her distant past. As Stands With A Fist continues to interpret for Dunbar and Kicking Bird, McDonnell slowly alters her dialect and the transition is realistic and good. While her character's arc might be predictable, her acting makes it work.

And Kevin Costner is good on-screen as well as behind the camera. Costner plays Dunbar and the role is unlike any other I have seen him in. In fact, this might well be the performance of his career as he plays his character as deep there are moments when he portrays real hurt better than I ever would have guessed he could.

On DVD, Dances With Wolves comes with two different commentary tracks and a documentary on the making of the film which was made when the film was originally released. As well, there is an entire second disc with bonus features. That disc includes the theatrical trailers and featurettes on everything from the casting to the costume design. This is truly a wonderful set of bonus features for an astonishingly good film.

Ultimately, Dances With Wolves is not a perfect film, but with the quality of the DVD presentation, it comes remarkably close.

[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project available here! Please check it out!]

For other epic dramas, please visit my reviews of:
The Lord Of The Rings
The Untouchables
The Red Violin


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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