This movie has all the necessary ingredients of a classic road movie, the long trip that turns into as much of a philosophical journey as a physical one, the oddball characters encountered along the way, and the everything-will-be-alright ending. But the foundation of Smoke Signals is the central figures of Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, two natives of the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho. I would not say that Victor and Thomas are exactly friends, but they have known each other since childhood and they share a link. At a drunken Fourth of July celebration in 1976, Arnold Joseph, Victor’s father, accidentally set fire to a house killing everyone trapped inside. However, Arnold did manage to save his son and the infant Thomas from the blaze.
The movie is narrated by Thomas, who has become a devout believer in spirits. He waits patiently for visions and enjoys stories of both fact and fiction. Yet,
he is also a bit of a nerd who spends too much time watching Indians on television and Dances With Wolves. Nonetheless, Thomas who was raised by his grandmother continues to worship Arnold even though Arnold left the reservation for a life in Phoenix when Thomas and Victor were only 12 years old. But Victor fumes with hostility toward his father for abandoning him and his mother Arlene. The boyhood scenes of Victor and Arnold show a man who loves his son dearly but who is also clearly possessed by his own demons. One minute Arnold is happily telling stories to his son, drinking his beer as they drive home, the next he’s slapping Victors head for knocking over the bottle. Victor responds by alternately showing love and rage for his confused and violent father.
Now in his twenties, Victor is a quiet young man, still as a rock. After Arlene receives a call from Phoenix informing her that Arnold has passed away, Victor is sent to retrieve the possessions of this man who has caused him such pain. Thomas winds up tagging along for the ride, since he’s got the money to get the two of them all the way from Idaho to Arnold’s trailer in Arizona.
Along the way, they teach each other life lessons. Thomas, through his storytelling shows Victor that there’s more to life than cynicism and pent-up anger. Victor, in turn, lets Thomas know what it means to be a real Indian. In my favorite scene, Victor has these words of advice, “Indians ain’t supposed to smile. Get stoic. If you don’t look mean, white people won’t respect you.” This shows the inside struggle Victor faces about being an Indian in a white mans world. A few scenes later, when two obnoxious white men steal their seats, Victor and Thomas don’t fight them but retire to the back of the bus, where they wage warfare by singing a rude anthem devoted to John Wayne’s teeth. For Thomas, the trip from Idaho to Arizona means an opportunity to come to grips with his ancestry. For Victor, it’s a chance to forgive his estranged father in death. For me, it offers the prospect of seeing beyond the stereotypes that plague Native Americans in all films.
The many characters the two meet along the way provide good comedic and dramatic support. There’s a radio traffic reporter who sits at a deserted intersection and reports about who occasionally passes by, what speed they’re going, and whether they’re likely to be late for work. The two women who offer Victor and Joseph a ride is driving the car backwards, which I believe is supposed to represent the direction the Indian culture is heading, backward. The young Indian lady, Suzy Song who has been saving Arnold’s ashes. Suzy is a modern, professional woman living and working on the reservation who befriends Arnold in the last years of his life. When he dies, her mourning keeps her from returning to work for a month. There is also a small-town sheriff who is not as prejudiced as he first seems.
I enjoyed the ending when Victor finally came to terms with his father. He forgave Arnold for the past and seemed to make a good friend with Thomas for the future.
My reaction to Smoke Signals is that it was a decent movie. It is not a film I would normally have rented, let alone pay $7.00 to see in a theater.
It is very much a dialogue movie, as was Pulp Fiction, but it lacked any of the action I crave. The comedic moments in Smoke Signals were very light and did not make me laugh, which left nothing else except plain drama. Overall, my rating of this film is **/*****.