The Canadian Indian actor Graham Greene has sharp gifts for comedy and machismo that weren't fully exploited in the movie that made him famous, "Dances With Wolves." But they came through strongly in "Thunderheart," where Greene stole the show as a wise-cracking American Indian lawman. And they do again in the taut low-budget Canadian thriller, "Clearcut" (Monica 4-Plex).
Here, Greene plays an even odder and more charismatic role: a mysterious stranger named Arthur, who bloodily intrudes into a clash over Indian lands between a logging company and the local tribe. Like the hipster lawman in "Thunderheart," who looked disdainfully at Val Kilmer when he wanted to trade a rock for some Ray-Bans, Levi-clad Arthur is someone who shifts easily between white and Indian worlds, mocking both.
But the deputy was just a wily joker. Arthur is a violent interloper who bites the heads off snakes, kidnaps the logging company president, and, at one point, starts to skin him alive. Arthur is malice unleashed, seemingly unstoppable, and it's suggested halfway through that he isn't a man at all, but a Wisakedjak, a bloody "trickster spirit" summoned up from the Earth by the boiling rage of victims.
It might seem hard to play a role like that playfully, but Greene has an unerring comic sense. He pulls it off. With his bemused eyes and lazy, threatening grace, Arthur straddles the line between menace and whimsy, attracting and unsettling us just as much as he does the movie's central character, Peter (Ron Lea).
Peter is the focal point and a near contemporary cliche: an earnest, bespectacled young liberal lawyer who loses the Indian's court case on timber-stripping and ineffectually says he'll mount an appeal. He seems hopeless, hapless: ridiculed by his genial bully boy opponent Bud Rickets (perfectly played by Michael Hogan), and then dragged along by Arthur on his terrorist caper.
As Arthur and Peter plunge into the woods, dragging Rickets along, "Clearcut" becomes a thriller-fable about oppression and rebellion in modern terms. But it's also about the hell of answered prayers, the nightmare of seeing your brutal fantasies come alive. Arthur, it's clear, is what Peter, in the depths of frustration and rage, would really like to be. But, when Arthur starts pulling off Peter's secret, vindictive fantasies--tying up the noisy neighbors next door, or torturing Rickets--he's carrying the bloody joke too far.
"Clearcut" (MPAA rated R for language and violence) was directed by Polish filmmaker Richard Bugajski, a protege of Andrzej Wajda, and known here for his 1982 "Interrogation." That earlier film was a grueling portrayal of an innocent female political prisoner, subjected to police state torture in the 1950s; banned by the old Polish communist regime, it eventually won the Cannes Festival Best Actress prize for star Krystyna Janda. But, though "Clearcut" has the same remorseless take-it-to-the-end quality as "Interrogation," the same visual vigor, the same jarring interplay between life and fantasy, and even the same subject--a prisoner being tortured--it has a more mixed and disturbing final affect.
Our sympathies aren't as clean. This time, the prisoner-victim is also a villain. And Arthur, after all, is culturally familiar. With his macho swagger, vicious wisecracks and quiet ferocity, he's the Schwarzenegger-Stallone-Seagal action hero dropped into a painful, real-life milieu. If he seems more terrifying, true and vulnerable than the others, it's because of the whimsical little edge Graham Greene keeps giving him. "I'm playing with you" his eyes keep saying. And then, with a dark little glint: "Just try and stop me. "
Graham Greene: Arthur
Ron Lea: Peter
Michael Hogan: Bud Rickets
Floyd Red Crow Westerman: Wilf
A David Major/John Lawrence Re/Cinexus Capital Corporation presentation of a Stephen J. Roth production, released by Northern Arts Entertainment. Director Richard Bugajski. Producers Stephen J. Roth, Ian McDougal. Screenwriter Rob Forsyth. Cinematographer Francois Rotat. Editor Michael Rea. Music Shane Harvey. Production design Perri Gorrar. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
MPAA-rated R (language, violence).