Posted by: gdevi | August 10, 2011

Movie Review: Snow Walker (2003)

Two more weeks and this wonderful summer is over and school starts for another year. But I have had a good summer. I garden, read (no writing – conference papers put away!), take D swimming, biking, horse riding etc, and most of all, watch movies. I love movies. I think Netflix streaming is the coolest thing on earth since the printing press.

When I was growing up in India and would read the Canadian writer Farley Mowat’s stories and novels, I would imagine myself homesteading in the Yukon territories, or in the Arctic Northwestern territories of Canada. I had never seen snow–except in Hindi movies which my brother insisted was salt–lot of salt–and I just absolutely loved the idea of living in a cold place. Kerala was so warm and tropical. In some ways I think that was the main reason I decided to go to North Dakota to study. I had received three scholarships at the same time — University of New South Wales in Australia, University of East Anglia in the UK, and the University of North Dakota in the US. I remember Appu and I looking at the map for North Dakota and MN seeing all these strange place names — Crookston, Thief River Falls, Devil’s Lake — it looked like such an interesting place. Okay I am going to North Dakota. Actually it is a wonderful place; I have lots of friends there and the eight years I lived there were some of the best years of my life. Snow Walker is a beautiful film adaptation of a Farley Mowat short story “Walk Well, My Brother” set in the Northwestern territory of Canada starring Barry Pepper, the Inuit actress Annabella Piugattuk, and James Cromwell, directed by Charles Martin Smith who actually played Mowat in Never Cry Wolf (1983), another wonderful book and movie. Pepper plays Charlie Halliday a cocky bush pilot who crashes into the Arctic wilderness while making deliveries to a small Inuit village. The movie is almost in real time showing us the arc of transformation that awaits Halliday. It is customary to think of movies such as Snow Walker as showcasing the contact between two completely different cultures, and in some ways, this movie does that as well. But there is also something much more fundamental and minimalist in Smith’s treatment of this subject-matter–like snow really–that takes us to the heart of what makes a community. Kanalaaq, a young dying Inuit woman lives just long enough to give life back to Halliday. And it is the land that teaches you this bond of community; if you see someone lying in the snow, you must stop.  Smith presents the Arctic wilderness with its mosquito swarms, its bony winters, its snow storms without any sensationalism; this is the wilderness but there are people who know how to live here, and there are people who don’t know how to live here.

When Halliday makes his delivery to the Inuit village, two elders ask him to take the sick young girl Kanalaaq to YellowKnife, the capital city of the territory so she can get to a hospital. She is ill with Tuberculosis. Halliday is hesitant at first, but then agrees to take her when they give him two huge pieces of ivory that would fetch him lots of money in the city. While flying over the wilderness the plane’s engine catches fire and they crash. Smith shows us how the two casualties regard the crash. Halliday is completely helpless without the plane, the radio, the gun, the bullets et al. Kanalaaq catches fish, makes a fire, gets animal pelt and starts sewing shoes and coats..  Annabella Piugattuk, the young Inuit actress has a beautiful calm face that radiates a particular kind of permanence and strength. They make halting conversations with each other in mangled English and Inuktituk; while Halliday is cocky, impatient, helpless and frustrated, he is also fundamentally a good human being. He wants to get back to YellowKnife to his friends, his bars, and his girlfriend. But he doesn’t know how to, and he is a dead man, without Kanalaaq. This land is like a bullet to your brain, the locals in the bar affirm.

Kanalaaq follows him when he sets out on his own to a week’s walk to find a village that he thinks exists from the site of the crash. He is hunted down by a mosquito swarm and knocked unconscious. He wakes up after a long time to see that Kanaalaq had followed him, and had cleaned him up, bound his blistered and broken feet with herbs and leaves, and raised a small make-shift shelter over him with the pelt of animals. Halliday starts to make his first real relationship with another human being without bravado and commerce. He sees that Kanaalaq has nothing to gain from helping him–she is dying–whereas he had agreed to take her only because of the ivory.

Smith intercuts the scenes in the wilderness with Halliday and Kanaalaq with those of his friends in YellowKnife. His boss, Shep played memorably by James Cromwell who regards him as a son is greatly distressed about his disappearance and possible death. Some of his friends are distressed, but many consider it “part of the job” of being a bush pilot.  Some even try to cut deals with Shep to capitalize on Halliday’s death, fishing in troubled waters, as in an early cameo appearance by the young Jon Gries who later played Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite. Get out, Shep tells him, before I throw you out. The real contrast between the Inuit way of life and that of the West, a civilizational difference, is most evident in the words of Halliday’s girlfriend Estelle who comes to comfort Shep. “You must not blame yourself for his death,” she tells Shep, “we all live and die alone. We are not responsible for his disappearance and death.” Martin shows these scenes as real civilizational differences. The girl actually believes this to be the case. We see the contrast between this view of death and that of the Inuit’s in the scene where Halliday and Kanaalaq come across another crashed and abandoned aircraft with the rotting body of the pilot still inside the cockpit. Halliday starts to “salvage” everything he can from this crash–the gun, the tools, parts for the radio etc–while Kanaalaq gets visibly agitated and starts to walk away from him. When he throws the dead body of the pilot and tries to hold it down with tarp, Kanaalaq comes back and starts to build a burial mound for him with stones. Halliday watches and after a while helps her create the burial mound. Without speaking a word, Kanaalaq takes all the tools etc that Halliday had “saved” from the wreck and puts it inside the burial mound; those belong to his spirit now, not to you.  You cannot benefit from another person’s wreck. These are fundamental civilizational differences and Smith shows the Inuit plane with pristine clarity. Some folks loot a dead person. Some folks walk by. Some folks bury them. Some folks see their spirit.

Thus Halliday’s gradual transformation becomes complete when in the scene after Kanaalaq’s death, he builds a burial mound for her. He puts all of Kanaalaq’s belongings in the mound–her sewing needle and thread, her stone tools, and finally the big tusks of ivory that he had taken from the tribe as pay for taking her to the hospital. It does not belong to him anymore. Reminded me of this beautiful scene in the Chippewa writer Louise Erdrich’s great  story “The Red Convertible,” where the main character finally drowns the red convertible car into the same river where his friend had committed suicide. Walk well, my brother, Kanaalaq tells Halliday as she lies dying. Take these shoes, she gives him the shoes she had sewn for him from animal pelt, they will take you to my people.

Halliday’s transformation becomes full-circle when he finally reaches Kanaalaq’s tribe. In a medium long-shot we see Halliday slouching through mounds of blinding snow from the right side of the screen towards a group of people walking towards him from the left side of the screen slouching through blinding snow. They stop a few inches from each other. Then the group moves towards Halliday and takes him into their midst. It is an iconic scene. In a bar in YellowKnife, when an Inuit bumps into Halliday and says “excuse me brother,” Halliday had violently shoved him aside telling him “I am not your brother.” But he is.

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