Because November is Native American Heritage Month, the contribution of filmmaker Chris Eyre – a Native American of Cheyenne-Arapaho descent – is more than appropriate for today’s hidden gem. His 2002 film “Skins” is a fascinating tale of two Oglala-Sioux brothers who live in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation area of South Dakota, minutes from the Mt. Rushmore national monument. Rudy Yellow Lodge (Eric Schweig) is a dedicated police officer and his older brother, Mogie Yellow Lodge (Graham Greene) is an alcoholic drifter.
Eyre, who previously directed the entertaining “Smoke Signals,” begins this much more grim tale, with documentary footage of the Pine Ridge Reservation and its horrible legacy of deprivation. Adapting an Adrian C. Louis’s novel by screenwriter/co-producer Jennifer D. Lyne, the film notes the official statistics that more than 40% of the Pine Ridge residents live below the poverty line and 75% are unemployed. They suffer more than the national average of alcoholism and their life expectancy is 15 years less than the national average.
Eyre’s tale is structured narratively like “a slice of life” character study of Rudy, a guy who has seemingly done things right. The unmarried Rudy is an active member of his tribal council and even finds time to see Stella, a married woman he has known for a while. While he’s frustrated with his people’s living conditions he is mostly concerned about his brother Mogie.
Flashbacks reveal Rudy’s traumatic teen life when his father physically abused his mother. One instance especially is significant when after a high school football game their dad got in such a violent, drunken rage, that both brothers had to beat their dad to protect their mom.
Early on it’s revealed that Mogie was a distinguished Vietnam War veteran who was a three-time Purple Heart recipient, yet faced nothing but troubles ever since leaving the service. One afternoon Rudy gets his brother off the street to attend a local police picnic, but Mogie gets even drunker and causes problems interrupting a football game.
Rudy’s first official concern is the discovery of a badly beaten, dead local resident, Corky Red Tail, who is found in an abandoned house at the edge of town. Investigating the situation, he overhears the two punks who brag about killing the man. Rudy takes justice into his own hands—as a sort of vigilante: he darkens his face, and wearing a stocking mask, attacks the two guys in the dark, breaking their knees.
Other nights he gets a call to break up a domestic disturbance, with a man beating his wife; another afternoon a buddy of Mogie’s, Verdell Weasel Tail (Gary Farmer) gets his leg in a bear trap, set by a resident who claims he’s protecting his property from vagrants and thieves.
And when local television stations report that liquor stores in nearby White Clay, Nebraska, sell cheap alcohol to local Indians, Rudy gets so angry (knowing that Mogie regularly frequents those stores), he dons his mask again, and using a variety of accelerants torches the liquor store, hiding the trappings of his arsonist tricks. Tragically, Mogie was behind the burning store and suffers horrible burns.
After a short recovery from his burns, Rudy learns Mogie has little time to live. The doctors reveal he’s suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and has severe stomach ulceration. Rudy shares his vigilante actions with Mogie and shows deep regret for causing the pain of his burns.
Mogie reveals his own rather bizarre protest plan, which involves sticking explosives in the Mt. Rushmore monument and blowing off Washington’s nose. Later, in tribute to his beloved brother, Rudy defaces the Rushmore monument with indelible red paint.
Schweig and Greene are outstanding in natural, unpretentious performances as Eyre’s “Skins” which balances a variety of important social issues of injustice and abuses, with genuine moments of inspirational ethnic pride and dignity of a people who have endured much from usurpers of their lands.