Thunderheart Blu-ray Review: A Gritty Neo-Western

Thunderheart (1992) was directed by Michael Apted (Gorillas in the Mist), written by John Fusco (Young Guns I & II) and stars Val Kilmer, Sam Shepard, and Graham Green. It’s inspired by true events that involved members of the American Indian Movement (AIM) and various incidents that occurred on numerous Native American Reservations in the early 1970s. Great characters, solid acting, an environmental plotline, and picturesque locations turn this mystery, crime thriller into a classic neo-western must see. 

Buy Thunderheart (1992) Blu-ray

FBI agent Ray Levoi (Kilmer) is sent to a Native American Reservation in South Dakota to help investigate the murder of a tribal council member. The FBI assigned Ray to the case mostly as a PR move due to his minimal Sioux heritage. The agency hopes that by sending Ray the tribal members will feel at ease and be more open to cooperate. Ray is hesitant because he has chosen to forget that part of his life and has dissociated himself from it completely.  

Ray is partnered with bureau legend and his personal hero, Agent Frank Coutelle (Shepard) known as “Cooch,” who has been working on the case and has a short suspect list. Cooch’s list includes a school teacher Maggie Eagle Bear (Sheila Tousey) and Jimmy Looks Twice (poet/activist John Trudell), a wily leader of the Aboriginal Rights Movement known as ARM. Things get really interesting when they meet tribal police officer Walter Crow Horse (Green) who insists this case has deeper roots that run toward ARM’s rivals, the Guardians of the Oglala Nation (referred to as the GOON Squad) led by tribal president, Jack Milton (Fred Ward). 

Crow Horse and Ray eventually set their differences aside to team up and get to the bottom of what’s happening on this particular Rez. Crow Horse introduces Ray, dubbed the “Washington Redskin” by locals, to tribal elder Grandpa Sam Reaches (Ted Thin Elk) who helps Ray embrace his past as he follows clues that will lead him to the truth behind all the trouble that’s been plaguing the Rez. That truth includes land deals, water pollution, and the systematic destruction of a people’s beliefs.   

Thunderheart is a gritty, mystery thriller that moves at a good pace and is fueled by its fiery story. Driving that story home is its unique cast of characters and the strong actors that portray them. Writer John Fusco spent many years among the Lakota studying the language, traditions, and mythology, some of which he manages to incorporate into the movie like the Trickster and shapeshifting beings. He also became familiar with many of the people who inspired his characters while learning about the events that would evolve into the plot of Thunderheart. Those people’s humor and depth show through in the characters Fusco brings to vibrant life.

Green’s Crow Horse and Thin Elk’s Grandpa Reaches are perfect examples of that humor and heritage. Brushed aside is the “wooden Indian,” stoic-caricature myth replaced by people who love, laugh, and fiercely protect their community and their future. Trudell as Jimmy Looks Twice scores big time with his portrayal of a militant leader looking to expose corruption, especially when it comes from his own people acting as government goons. Sheila Tousey shines as Maggie, giving us a look at what some of the fearless and strong female leaders of the movement were like in everyday life. 

Kilmer and Shepard turn in fine performances in their roles as rookie and mentor at odds over ideals and ethics. Kilmer, who always submerges himself in his roles, does well as a young man struggling to come to terms with his past and his future. Joining them are Fred Ward as a well-dressed “government Indian,” Fred Thompson as an FBI boss, and Sarah Brave as the observant Grandmother. David Crosby even makes an appearance as a redneck bartender. 

The audio commentary track by Fusco is the only special feature and is an excellent companion to the movie. For the full 120-minute run time, Fusco provides a knowledgeable account of what went into making Thunderheart, why he decided to learn the Lakota language from Frank Fools Crow, and how he saved the movie from being Lethal Weapon on the Rez. 

Fusco also details how he and director Apted wanted to tell the story of those terrible times with as much realism and truth as possible. To make things even more life-like, Fusco and Apted brought in many of the people, from both sides of the battlefield, who were actually there. Some appear in the background like Dennis Banks, while others like Trudell had a major role. We’re informed that Trudell did his own stunts which include a stunning escape scene where he leaps away, jumping over his cuffed hands, bringing them in front of him allowing him to grab weapons as he flees. Fusco also reveals that Apted was actually in the process of making his documentary on Leonard Peltier, Incident at Oglala (1992) while filming Thunderheart. As Fusco speaks, I can’t help but be reminded of the character of Kenny Boy from Reservation Dogs. I’m not exactly sure what to make of that nugget aside from the fact that it adds another layer to that great series.

Thunderheart thrives as a classic neo-Western, crime thriller because of its realism and bold characters. Fusco is proud of the fact that the movie is beloved among Native Americans for its positive, honest portrayal of them and the ongoing struggle that The People face in modern times. 

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Joe Garcia III

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