War Pony (2022)
Directors: Riley Keough, Gina Gammell
Screenwriters: Riley Keough, Gina Gammell, Franklin Sioux Bob, Bill Reddy
Starring: Jojo Bapteise Whiting, Ladainian Crazy Thunder
Set on and around the Pine Ridge Native American reservation in South Dakota, Riley Keough and Gina Gammell’s 2022 Cannes entry War Pony follows two young Native American men from the Oglala Lakota community who share an aimlessness in their lives, both wandering through multiple relationships and different living situations in an attempt to make it from one day to the next.
The backdrop of the movie would fool you into believing that the film is set in the late 90s, maybe the early 2000s, with characters only having access to old cars, TVs and phones, but it is outside of the reservation that we see this is not the case. Small details like this are laced throughout the film, functioning as a means for Keough and Gammell to help us understand the mindset of the characters as well as the circumstances in which they live.
We are first introduced to Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting), the older of the two leads, as he drives around town, ignoring phone calls from the mother of his first child asking him to bail her out of jail, and flirting with every girl he comes across. Bill is a natural businessman, coming up with every get-rich-quick scheme he can: charging hitchhikers for rides, selling drugs, and even breeding a pet poodle. His constant goal to make money is one that could only be rivalled by Del Boy Trotter of ‘Only Fools and Horses’, but Whiting brings such a charisma to the role that you can’t help but to respect his hustle.
The younger of the two, Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), lives with his distant, abusive, drug-dealing father. In spite of the clear distance in their relationship, Matho idolises his dad to the point of replicating a fight that he had with his friends and selling drugs at school. His antics ironically get him thrown out of his house and Matho spends most of his days trying to find a new home. Just like Bill, Matho is simply trying to survive. Crazy Thunder brings a wonderful naivety to his role and a wide-eyed wonder at the world he lives in, and this really pushes home his lack of any life experience to prepare him for what he is going through. Though the leads have clear differences, the structure of the film works to illustrate their similarities in personality and life experience, so much so that one could be fooled into thinking that the film is showing us two different portions of the same man’s life.
In her introduction for the film at Glasgow Film Festival 2023, the festival’s chief executive Allison Gardner took joy in proclaiming the festival’s desire to “challenge” its audience. That is exactly what War Pony does. In their very strong direction, Riley Keough and Gina Gammell create an intentionally slow pace, essentially forcing us to become as aimless as the two leads of the film. Whilst the decision is a bold one that works ninety percent of the time, there are moments in which the pacing can feel like a slog to get through. With this in mind, and due to the minimalist way in which the characters are developed, the film does run the risk of disengaging some of its potential audience. This is most evident in the film’s third act which, despite featuring one of the best payoffs to a film you will see for quite some time, seems to drop off instead of building up to something special, ultimately creating a disappointing end to the movie.
War Pony certainly is the challenging film that Glasgow Film Festival promised but not always for the right reasons. Though it may present us with great characters that we come to love and respect as the film goes on, the pacing can make for a less than comfortable watch and the disappointing final third ends things on a sour note. Though there is much to love about War Pony, especially the eventual payoff, one can’t help but to feel that more people will leave cinemas feeling frustrated than excited.