This film could have been titled “There Will Be Beef.”
Set mostly in a hyper-desolate Native American reservation town in Minnesota, Jack Pettibone Riccobono’s “The Seventh Fire” centers on two sometimes reprehensible but extraordinarily vivid men. Rob Brown, whose tribal name is Two Thunderbirds, has spent many of his 37 years incarcerated and will soon head back to prison, leaving behind a pregnant girlfriend. Kevin Fineday Jr., approaching his 18th birthday, looks up to Rob and almost seems like his younger self: by all indications, he’s headed for a life of crime, prison and gang activity. He too has a pregnant girlfriend.
Roger Ebert famously described movies as “empathy machines,” and Riccobono’s film is a powerful example of cinema’s ability to grant even the diciest of characters their full humanity. Described in a newspaper article or crime report, Rob and Kevin would inevitably be reduced to two-dimensional types, self-serving lowlifes who contribute nothing to society and are held in contempt even by some closest to them. While not excusing their behavior, “The Seventh Fire” lets us see both men as complex figures with recognizable feelings and a poignant sense of their own failings and aspirations.
The film has three credited writers (Riccobono along with co-cinematographer Shane Omar Slattery-Quintanilla and editor Andrew Ford), yet it is also nominally a work of nonfiction. Though that may seem a bit contradictory, it captures the film’s sense of comprising a work of “faction,” forging a drama out of real-life materials. Filmed in catch-as-catch-can verite style, it dispenses with documentary techniques such as titles and narration in order to immerse us into its subjects’ lives.
One result of this approach is that its early sections especially feel a bit scattershot. It takes a while of weaving into Rob and Kevin’s intertwined lives over a period of months to begin getting a sense of what makes them tick. Yet the dead-end quality of life in Pine Point village—or “P-Town” as it’s known—on the White Earth Indian Reservation is evident from the outset. It’s a bleak place of identical cheaply made houses, where residents who want dispense with unwanted furniture simply put it on the curbside and set it on fire.