There are many ways to deal with the past. For some, it’s easier to move on and look to the future rather than process deeds done. For others, ignorance is a way of life, though it doesn’t excuse them from any acts of unintentional insult or injury. For a few, claims of innocence, of uninvolvement, are the shield to which they cling when challenged. In truth, no one is really innocent when nothing is done to make reparations. Time and again, throughout humankind’s history, there are instances where one group, in believing themselves superior, sought to remove, expunge, or exterminate another. Few are free from such accusations. In the United States, none have been as aggrieved as the members of the Native American tribes, forcibly removed from their homes, pushed off their lands, branded as dangers to society, and, through the rule of law, stripped of the things which made their great nations loom large just so the Founding Fathers of the United States could create a nation of their own. In many ways, the hubris and folly of the Fathers are placed under high scrutiny in writer/director Steven Lewis Simpson’s (A Thunder-Being Nation) Neither Wolf Nor Dog, an adaptation of the novel by Kent Nerburn.
Kent Nerburn (Christopher Sweeney) exists in a strange moment in time. While he’s struggling with the recent death of his father, his wife Louise (Sarah Sido) has a sister expecting to give birth imminently. There is joy to be had in the celebration of new life, but it’s difficult to do so when mired by loss. In a strange bit of timing, Kent receives a call from Wenonah (Roseanne Supernault) with a message that her grandfather Dan (Chief Dave Bald Eagle) would like to speak with him. As Dan doesn’t use cell phones, the only way to converse is for Kent to drive 400 miles to see him. Initially, Kent refuses on the grounds of confusion and a sense of mourning; however, a reminder of his own father’s selflessness changes his mind and puts Kent in his truck and on the way to see Dan. It seems that Dan liked the book that Kent helped assemble about the Red Lake Ojibwe and wants Kent to do the same for his Lakota. Initially reluctant and met with constant rebukes from all but Dan, Kent isn’t sure he’s the right person for the job. However, the journey he begins with that first meeting with Dan sets Kent on a path to change his perspective and his life.
Within Neither Wolf Nor Dog is a significant and important message about responsibility and culpability. It doesn’t matter if anyone alive fought beside Custer or helped draft the laws which forced reservations. All who exist in this country do so with an aura of accountability for the things which they possess the power to make right and don’t. That alone is increasingly powerful as a narrative tool and one which Simpson never shies away from discussing or declaring while adapting Nerburn’s book. Not when a drunk and his companion enter a coffee shop, not when Wenonah lambasts Kent for perceived weakness, and not when the truth of Dan’s request comes to light. Nothing about Wolf is simple or easy, making it a particularly brutal watch at times. It is, however, a necessary watch if some semblance of understanding is going to be achieved. This is where Kent comes in. As the audience’s proxy, he understands just enough to get through Dan’s door, but not enough to survive more than a few moments without some kind of correction. What Kent and the audience think they know is very different from the truth of things. It’s a hard road to travel, but if the audience can stick it through, the end result of Wolf is profound.
The trick is getting to the end. Like many cinematic adaptations, trying to convert text to film is more difficult than one imagines. In research for this review, it seems that the novel makes it clear how Dan, Wenonah, and Grover (Richard Ray Whitman), a family friend, try to break Kent out of his false perceptions through the use of derision and jokes. The approach seems intent on using tricks and insults as a means of forcing Kent to reconsider his world-view in order to better capture Dan’s words. The problem is that doesn’t come across in the film as the intent. Rather, Kent is shown as the subject of more and more ridicule leading to several moments where the audience, like Kent, can’t seem to understand why he remains in their company. There’s a certain amount of peer pressure involved as Kent tries to live up to his father’s idea of service before self, as well as situational elements which make it difficult for Kent to remove himself from Dan and Grover’s company, yet why Kent stays remains a constant mystery. If, however, the audience can make it past the first hour, what remains is entirely worthwhile and quite heartbreaking at times. However, making it that far without throwing hands up in frustration is something else. Kent is not trusted, even though invited. He’s not welcomed, even though he’s acting in service of Dan. Despite several attempts in understanding the culture, even the slightest slip destroys a majority of the goodwill he develops. This is not entirely Kent’s fault, which the script does take care to acknowledge in small ways, however, without the same sense that the novel appears to suggest with the context, the abuse within the first hour makes things a touch unbearable. One can’t help but wonder whether or not this is the point Simpson is trying to make regarding culpability. Is Simpson trying to provoke frustration, tapping into subconscious biases in order to ask these same questions? Or is the issue that in adapting the work, some of the nuance is gone, creating holes which would otherwise be filled?
Credit to Simpson for tackling such material and managing to stick the landing so deftly, even if the start is difficult to engage with. Considering that Simpson also handled cinematography and editing, in addition to screenwriting, he truly ran everything behind the scenes and it all appears on the screen. He beautifully captures the vibrancy of Dan’s land, as well as the coldness of a cemetery holding a dark memory of our country’s past. Simpson seizes upon the energy and wisdom Dan emanates, something to be expected from the then-95 year old Lakota elder, as well as Kent’s naiveté, despite being somewhat worldly. This, combined with emotional performances from the cast, makes any obvious grievances easier to ignore.
Kent Nerburn’s Neither Wolf Nor Dog released in 1995, won awards, and spawned a sequel, The Wolf at Twilight. Though it’s less likely that Steven Lewis Simpson’s telling will spawn a similar sequel, there’s no denying the emotional resonance of his work. Rather than seeking to gloss over the sins of the past, Simpson points the camera right at it and never pulls away. Often uncomfortable and frequently frustrating, Neither Wolf Nor Dog possesses the potential to start a conversation about healing through the recognition of the truth, not what laws present or society has suggested time and again, but the actual, brutal truth. Taking the meaning of the title into account, that one can’t exist if they choose to deny that which is themselves, how can we, as a country, ever truly exist if we deny our past. At some point, that’s a question we need to answer. It’s certainly one Simpson wants us to consider.
In select theaters beginning September 13th, 2019.
Writer/director Steven Lewis Simpson will participate in Q&As during the opening weekend presentations at the Laemmle’s Pasadena Playhouse for the following shows:
- Friday, September 13, 7pm show.
- Saturday, September 14, 4pm show.
- Saturday, September 14, 7pm show, which will also include actor/associate producer Christopher Sweeney.
- Sunday, September 15, 1:10pm show.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.