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SKINS

Better Red than Dead

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It's not enough to say that Chris Eyre's Skins finds its drama amid the social decay on a South Dakota Indian reservation, for it also takes pains to place it there. Eyre opens the film with TV news-style footage of the Pine Ridge reservation, site in 1890 of the Wounded Knee massacre of more than 200 Sioux by U.S. soldiers. Today the reservation suffers 75 percent unemployment, rampant alcoholism and other miseries -- not to mention the fact that it's just 60 miles from the Great White Fathers carved into the granite of Mount Rushmore, rock Native Americans held sacred.

Eyre zeros in on two brothers. Rudy (Eric Schweig) is a reservation cop with a bunch of chips on his beefy shoulder. The wise-cracking Mogie (Graham Greene), meanwhile, is just a few years older but looks like he could be Rudy's father. Apparently a tour in 'Nam and a couple of decades of alcoholism will do that to you.

One night Rudy finds himself at a murder scene, fails to catch a fleeing suspect, and only half thinking about it turns into a masked vigilante. But he re-examines his motives after Mogie is badly injured in one of his midnight forays to bring lone justice to the rez.

The concise drama, adapted by Jennifer D. Lyne from the Adrian C. Louis novel, is partly a character study and partly a brief for Native American rage. It's an emotion Mogie turns inward and Rudy -- used to playing the authority figure with everyone, including his older brother -- comes to wield like a literal club.

Eyre shoots the story in blunt terms that vividly convey its emotions. A scene in which Mokie's son reminds his soused pop that it's his birthday might have seemed mawkish in other hands, but Eyre's matter-of-fact approach makes it powerfully simple. Likewise with the film's humor, down to the little victory dance Mogie does when he takes his show-off brother down a peg. Countless details make Skins feel real, such as the everyday pathos of a military veteran's funeral in a school gymnasium.

Thematically bracketing the film with big-picture social pathology, Eyre risks biting off more than he can chew. Skins assails liquor profiteering along with drunken stupidity, historical genocide as well as modern native-on-native violence. But Eyre's smart depictions don't suggest what (besides simple defiance) anyone might do about any of it.

On the other hand, Eyre (Smoke Signals) is making a drama after all and not an episode of Hard Copy. More importantly, he's doing it from a native point of view. Schweig's intense performance anchors the film, but Skins' great guilty pleasure is watching Greene (from Dances with Wolves) embody the infuriating, endearing, funny and pathetic Mogie, who laughs without moving his face and wants to blast G. Washington's solemn nose right off the face of Rushmore. * * *

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