Indian Horse is formulaic with intermittent ferocity

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Indian Horse
Opens April 13

2.5 out of 5

The residential school system is Canada’s greatest shame. To add insult to injury, the guilty parties have been slow to come around. The pope, for example, still refuses to apologize. Then there’s people like Senator Lynn Beyak, who said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings have overshadowed the “good deeds” of “well-intentioned” residential school workers. You don’t have to look further than the comment section on any news outlet to find swarms of people who think like her.

All this is to say that Canadian cinema has a responsibility to bring the stories of First Nations’ residential school survivors to the big screen. Some of them — mostly documentary filmmakers — have answered the call, but it hasn’t been enough. And Indian Horse is the most high-profile effort to date (superb production values, strong cast) but it has issues that smaller productions (Rhymes for Young Ghouls) managed to overcome.

Based on Richard Wagamese’s novel, Indian Horse follows Saul, a residential school survivor, from early childhood to adulthood. A resilient kid, Saul endures the hardships (frequent physical abuse, separation from his family) better than most of his classmates, helped by his love for hockey and the relative protection of Father Gaston (Michiel Huisman, The Age of Adeline). Unfortunately, tragedy is unavoidable — especially after Saul confronts overwhelming racism outside school, not to mention repressed memories that won’t stay buried.

Because of the gravity and proximity of the events depicted in the film, Indian Horse packs a heavy emotional punch. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t build on those foundations: Indian Horse has brutal, hard-to-stomach moments, but it still feels formulaic.

A bigger problem is the character of Saul, played at different ages by Sladen Peltier, Forrest Goodluck and Ajuawak Kapashesit. It’s impossible to believe this is the same person at different ages. Also, a couple of traits don’t add up to a character. Saul feels like a blank canvas, only getting to drive the action in the film’s final minutes.

There are however scenes of great individual power. A horrific timeout and an incident on the rink in front of a bigoted crowd are sequences that stay with you.

With perfectly balanced pluses and minuses, Indian Horse is the very embodiment of my 2.5/5 rating.