The rough plot of “The Only Good Indian” is compelling. A boy is kidnapped from his family to be taken to an Indian “training school” where his hair is cut and he is forced to speak English and behave like The White Man. He escapes, but only to be picked up a couple days later by an Indian bounty hunter, Sam. The boy and Sam embark on an eventful journey in which they finally come together in the traditional western way; shoot out.
So far so good. Revisionist westerns like this really strike my fancy. I love seeing The White Man get his come-uppance…and if he doesn’t? Then I love how depressing the movie ends up being. “The Only Good Indian” doesn’t really go there. Instead, the whole thing ends up looking a lot like a Feature Films for Families effort. You know, like “The Buttercream Gang,” “The Velveteen Rabbit” and other straight to video movies. And while there’s really nothing wrong with films like these – they serve their purpose nicely – I don’t really want to be the one watching them.
One of the problems of the film is clearly the budget. While having a small budget is often a great help to many films, this film calls for something a bit bigger. Shot on video, it comes across as trying to be something it’s not. The shots that single a tiny figure out amidst beautiful Kansas scenery need to be shot with something a little less grainy and a little more epic. Every shot feels condensed, the color off and the picture pixilated. And like I said, this could work for a somewhat smaller subject with a more personal approach. But for something more broad, a broader format is in order.
There are some things to like about “The Only Good Indian,” though. Using Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” for the boy to read aloud and narrate, the film strikes a pretty awesome comparison between the life sucking Count and the culture sucking white men and women forcing youth Indians into camps. There are also a few compelling scenes at the school where children must hold fake funerals for the Indian that they have successfully “killed” through re-education (“kill the Indian, save the man”).
But ultimately the film fails. Everything is just a little too rosy and family friendly by the end, wrapping the narrative up in a bow for those who were still worried about the fate of Native America. Don’t worry, everything turned out great!