The Dark Wind Review

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Navajo police officer Jim Chee must solve a mystery involvoing murder, witchcraft, robbery and bizarre accidents on his Native American reservation patch. Making life more difficult is the prejudice of the Feds, who are convinced Chee is a criminal himself.


There was a certain amount of controversy during the production of this Robert Redford-backed movie about the casting of 3.6% Native American Lou Diamond Phillips as Jim Chee, the Navajo cop-cum-medicine man created in a well-loved series of novels by Tony Hillerman. In the event, the callow Phillips is pretty good in the role, certainly better than he was as a white cop in The First Power or a medicine man in Renegades, and he symmetrically backed up by 100% Indian Gary Farmer as Chee’s cowboy-hat wearing Hopi sidekick and boot-polish and Tonto-wigged Fred Ward as their boss, a major character in the novels relegated to sitting wisely behind a desk and grudgingly pointing out clues here.

Chee’s first week on the job as a patrolman on the Arizona reservation familiar as a John Ford location is complicated by a vandal who is sabotaging a watermill, a decaying body found after abuse in a witchcraft ritual in the desert, a mysterious midnight plane crash, a couple of thuggish FBI agents who suspect him of being a cocaine carrier, some passing moonshiners, a minor robbery at the local blanket and jewelry store and some missing ex-cons. In traditional Raymond Chandler fashion, all these minor threads become a tapestry of crime, and one of the supporting characters turns out to be a multiple murderer in a complex finish that finds Chee deducing the murderer’s identity and then being forced to rely on the culprit to get him out of a fatal jam with the killer feds.

Director Errol Morris is best known for his documentaries — The Thin Blue Line, about a real-life miscarriage of justice, in particular — but he segues here into a smooth genre piece, mainly well acted, slickly written and benefiting enormously from the natural beauty of the setting. However, The Dark Wind — the title refers to the Navajo idea that criminals are temporarily possessed by passing spirits — suffers badly in the transfer from novel to film, the whodunit format being essentially unsuited to the cinema, in which each clue must be given prominence in the frame rather than embedded in the text.

The film moves at a frustratingly slow pace, pausing every so often for a summation of the story so far, and even having Phillips sit down with a pencil and paper to sort out where all the clues are pointing. The culprit does everything but jump up and down wearing an “I AM THE KILLER” T-shirt, and the lack of any actual action amid the interviews with suspects and witnesses and prowls through the desert looking for corpses and clues makes the near two-hour running time seem like something akin to a painful tribal initiation rite.

With very little action and a less than dynamic hero, this adaptation does not do justice to the novel.