Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
"It's a good day to be indigenous!'' the reservation radio deejay tells his American Indian listeners as "Smoke Signals'' opens. We cut to the station's traffic reporter, who scrutinizes an intersection that rarely seems to be used. "A big truck just went by,'' he announces. Later in the film, we will hear several choruses of a song about John Wayne's false teeth.
"Smoke Signals'' comes billed as the first feature written, directed, co-produced and acted by American Indians. It hardly seems necessary to even announce that: The film is so relaxed about its characters, so much at home in their world, that we sense it's an inside job. Most films about Native Americans have had points to make and scores to settle, like all those earnest 1950s white films about blacks. Blaxploitation broke the ice and liberated unrehearsed black voices, and now here are two young Indians who speak freshly, humorously and for themselves.
The film opens in Idaho on a significant day: the Fourth of July, 1976. It's significant not only for America but for the infant Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who is saved by being thrown from an upper window when his house burns down at 3 a.m. He is caught in the arms of Arnold Joseph (Gary Farmer), a neighbor with a drinking problem, who is eventually thrown out by his wife (Tantoo Cardinal) and goes to live in Phoenix. He leaves behind his son Victor Joseph (Adam Beach).
And then, 20 years later, word comes that Arnold has died. Victor has a deep resentment against his father, but thinks he should go to Phoenix and pick up his ashes. He has no money for the journey, but Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) does--and offers to buy the bus tickets if Victor will take him along on the trip. That would be a big concession for Victor, who is tall and silent and has never much liked the skinny, talkative Thomas. But he has no choice. And as the movie settles into the rhythms of a road picture, the two characters talk, and the dialogue becomes the heart of the movie.