Up until “Reservation Dogs” and “Wild Indian,” Chris Eyre’s “Smoke Signals” was a notable exception as a mainstream work by Indigenous creatives. On the flip side, there are also innumerable examples of white folk exploiting Indigenous culture for either economic or artistic gain. With two white filmmakers helming “War Pony,” it would appear, at first blush, that another outsider’s conception of Indigenous history is in the cards.
Co-directors Gina Gammell and Riley Keough want to avoid such perceptions. Their film is a collaborative effort that began while Riley was filming “American Honey.” There she met two extras, the eventual co-writers of “War Pony,” Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob, who shared their Rez stories. These conversations would eventually inspire the trio and Gammell to compose their feature. The fruits of their exchange bear an immersive, albeit deeply cliched, collision between magic and neorealism.
The electrifying first-time actor Jojo Bapteise Whiting stars as Bill, a 23-year-old swaggering striver with a baby momma, two young children, and zero career prospects. He pulls a few tricks and hustles when he learns his baby momma, presently in jail, needs $400 for bail. First, he buys a poodle from a shady character hoping to breed the dog for big money. Then he attempts to pawn his car and his PS4. But he makes his firmest bid toward upward mobility when he sees Tim (Sprague Hollander), marooned with his pickup truck at the side of a dirt road.
Though Tim is married, he often fools around with Indigenous women. He has one in his truck. He elicits an agreement for Bill: In return for taking the woman home, he’ll give Bill the $400 he needs and a job at Tim’s turkey farm. The opportunity is a hustle that Bill hopes will grant him stability.
Ladainian Crazy Thunder also stars as Matho, a troubled 12-year-old kid living with an abusive drug-dealing father whose life seems to be hitting all the worst potholes. Matho and Bill aren’t directly related, not on familial grounds, but they are direct foils. Their divergent arcs, occurring in two different spaces on the Rez, convey the beginning of a cycle and the result of one. As Matho shifts from temporary homes to squatting in derelict buildings, from taking beatings to dealing drugs, from one flawed parental figure to another, you get the sense these are all obstacles Bill must have hit long ago.