War Pony


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

War Pony
"Everything here has a depth, a richness."

There is the actual animal, a dog. 'Beast', and the origin of that name is one of many small stories in the wider narrative. There will be turkeys. There are other animals too, metaphorical. The titular steed(s), but more frequently the spider, the buffalo. War Pony is somewhere in a hinterland in the foothills of the mythic, where the geographic gives way to the allegorical. The Power Of The Dog might be there, but that was New Zealand pretending to be a different frontier. The dedication and land acknowledgements at the start are part of that process.

The traditional homelands of the Oceti Sakowin and Tongva peoples. We could use other labels, Oglala Lakota, Pine Ridge Reservation, 'almost entirely within' South Dakota as a Wikipedian put it 'with a small portion in Nebraska'. At once inside and outwith the United States, one of a forest of boundaries, a nest of intersections.

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There are roots in and routes through and to masculinity, and I was minded for various reasons of a somewhat similar film, Waru. Not least because few see us as others see us, and in a long and complicated process of creation Gina Gammell and Riley Keough have brought something special to the screen. They co-direct, co-write with Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy. Bill lends his name to one of the film's two protagonists, played by Joho Bapteise Whiting. Matho, the younger, another compelling turn from a non-professional actor, Ladainian Crazy Thunder.

The genesis of the project was apparently a long wait and a larger conversation during American Honey, where Sioux Bob and Reddy were background artists. Their stories on that day, and subsequent visits, became a four year process of welcoming and understanding. There are traces of devised drama and rehearsal in the tale, but they land in different ways. Putty Hill was semi-improvisionational with a semi-professional cast and its meanderings were not endearing. When War Pony seems to drift it is finding a new angle to its course. It is not lost but sure-footed.

Which doesn't mean it's an easy watch. As the surprise movie at Glasgow's 2023 Film Festival one of the reactions I caught was nervous laughter. There is racism, sexism, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, and more. I would not call this magical realism but I would say it was realistically magical. Even the reasoning behind Matho's book. Whiting is charismatic, cocky, an entrepreneur temporarily embarrassed by circumstance and very rarely embarrassed by the consequences of romance. Crazy Thunder is on the other side of adolescence, and often alone in scenes, either physically or socially.

When actors move to directing it's easy to credit those they've worked for as influences, but my suspicion is that whatever might have been learned on the other side of the camera just served to distill a wellspring of compassion. This isn't a gentle film, not nice, not kind, but it is considered throughout, and all the more powerful for it.

Riley Keough (Zola, Mad Max: Fury Road) co-directs this her début feature with Gina Gemmell who had some previous shorts and music videos. The quality here belies that this is their first effort. Shown at Cannes as part of Un Certain Regard it's got a distinctive look, that production notes suggest was born from a desire that things not look 'cheap'. They don't, indeed everything here has a depth, a richness.

These are lives that seem full, even for characters credited as 'Auntie's Boy' or 'Tim's Girl'. I acknowledge the difficulty in mentioning the awkward nature of scenes involving Sprague Hollander and Ashley Shelton as the only Caucasian couple in the film. They play host to an even on Hallowe'en that layers even more blurred boundaries across an already complex (psycho)geographic landscape.

Some things are simple. The end credits are start, text on yellow red and black backgrounds. The snow on the ground lies. Christopher Stracey & Mato Wayuhi's score weaves through a mixture of tracks supervised by Ben Sokoler that goes from Buffy Saint-Marie to XXXTentacion and several places in between. There are traditional performances, 'tribal dances' is variously wrong, these are real places.

Some things are complicated. Human nature. The systems we make to navigate nature as humans, that we occupy. The first words that aren't sung are probably "Baby-momma got locked up." There's terminology everywhere, part of language whose origins contribute to its authenticity and whose frequency contributes to its BBFC rating. A 'rack', if you didn't know, is $1,000. There's plenty of other words that end with the same consonants, or its gerund.

There's a mess of relationships. Direct connections, implied ones as with Echo (Jesse Schmockel), indirect ones of implication in and among the mamas and aunties and more. A film born of relationships, I am thrilled that it's getting a cinematic release and am looking forward to it maybe appearing on DVD for a 'making of' and more. In the meantime I'm delighted to have the chance to see it again, to bathe in the detail and dust and delight. There are skeletons in the back but there's real meat on the stories here. The webs (those spiders) and weight (the buffalo) around both Matho and Bill accumulate and the intersection of their trails is a destination worth the trip.

War Pony is a product of a collective effort, but it takes its direction from a creative team who very clearly work well together. Far from slipshod, deliberate, even reined in, War Pony's power is as its namesake galloping. Sometimes grounded, sometimes floating, and always forward.

Reviewed on: 09 Jun 2023
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The interlocking stories of two young Oglala Lakota men growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation. At 23, Bill just wants to make something of himself. Whether it’s delivering goods or breeding poodles, he is determined to hustle his way to the American Dream. Meanwhile, 12-year-old Matho can’t wait to become a man.
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Director: Gina Gammell, Riley Keough

Writer: Franklin Sioux Bob, Bill Reddy, Riley Keough, Gina Gammell

Starring: Jojo Bapteise Whiting, Ladainian Crazy Thunder

Year: 2022

Runtime: 114 minutes

Country: US


SXSW 2023
Glasgow 2023

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