The beauty of directors Riley Keough (Elvis’ granddaughter) and Gina Gammell’s debut film War Pony lies in its non-commercial, non-professional cast and the vivid and subtle storytelling. The screenplay, co-written by Keough, Gammell, Bill Reddy, and Franklin Sioux Bob, provides a slow-burn character study that mesmerizes from start to finish. It’s a realistic, bleak, gritty tale of life on a reservation for two young men trying to find their way.
Jojo Bapteise Whiting (Bill) and LaDainian Crazy Thunder (Matho) don’t meet until the end of War Pony, but their lives take similar and sometimes dismal paths. One a boy (12-year-old Matho), and another a young man (23-year-old Bill), members of the Oglala Lakota tribe, live on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, and life is a daily and sometimes brutal battle. Matho’s role model and the person he seems to want to emulate is his meth-dealing, loser dad, and Bill, at 23, is already the father of two young children. Left to his own devices, Matho steals drugs from his father and sells them, and Bill works every angle and hustle to try to make bank.
Keough and Gammell’s telling highlights the heart of their characters and the situation they live in. On the one hand, it’s beautiful and, on the other, abysmally depressing. They give great credence to their Native American co-writers and the culture they portray. The film’s players are perfect, and its impact and story would have been lost with professional or well-known actors. David Gallego’s camera tightly follows alongside the film’s dual protagonists as they maneuver and navigate through life’s obstacles on the contemporary reservation. As a reminder and stark testament of all the community has lost, a bison wanders into the frame like a ghost of what was.
With such serious subject matter and many bleak plot points, it’s kind for the writers to have included a touch of humor, albeit it dark. Certainly, War Pony can sink into a draggy, devastatingly glum pace at times, but thankfully, it’s interspersed with ample lightheartedness, tension, shocks, and poignant moments to hold the audience’s attention. Ultimately, the story reveals an underbelly many would prefer to ignore, but filmmakers respectfully and beautifully tell the tale. War Pony deservedly earns 4 stars.