Filmmakers Alex and Andrew Smith made their feature debut more than a decade ago with "The Slaughter Rule," the cast of which included a then-unknown Amy Adams and Ryan Gosling before he had become some sort of mythological being.
The brothers' bio places them as having worked as screenwriters and teachers since then, which makes it even more unusual that their new "Winter in the Blood" feels boldly unburdened by many of the rules of structure and conventional storytelling that they have likely imparted to students. Or perhaps this is them allowing themselves to be free of the discipline they have developed elsewhere.
Based on the novel by the late James Welch, a longtime family friend of the Smiths, the story of "Winter in the Blood" is in some ways a tale of simple, raw struggle and survival among a small-town Native American community. After a brief prelude, the story begins with Virgil First Raise (Chaske Spencer) waking up drunk in a ditch. His wife (Julia Jones) has left him and taken some of his stuff, and he wants it back.
From there, the story captures a slipstream of memory and regret, interweaving past and present and what might be happening in Virgil's mind as he reflects on lost family and lost chances.
David Morse, who also appeared in "The Slaughter Rule," plays an uncharacteristically cartoonish villain; Gary Farmer, best known for his role in as Nobody in the mystical western "Dead Man," shows up as a combination of comic relief and Greek chorus.
"Winter in the Blood" is a difficult film to get a handle on, not least because it often feels like it should be easier to dismiss. But then it locks onto a moment that is unexpectedly arresting and little jabs of poetic meaning or hard-earned truths reel a viewer back in. Whether this film provides some new start for the brothers Smith will remain to be seen, but this film sets them free of convention and, like its wandering hero, on a path perhaps all their own.
"Winter in the Blood."
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.