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War Pony ★★★



Directed: Riley Keough and Gina Gammell

Cast: Jojo Bapteise Whiting, LaDainian Crazy Thunder, Jesse Schmockel, Sprague Hollander

Released: 9th June 2023 (UK Cinemas)

The lack of a Native American director at the helm of the reservation-based War Pony signals inevitable alarm bells: would a white gaze infiltrate the film? Would the depiction of life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation be accurate? Generally, co-directors Riley Keough and Gina Gammell answer these concerns emphatically, aided by their two Native American co-writers, Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob. There are moments of sensationalism, and it’s undoubtedly that an Indigenous person would have been a braver, better choice to direct, but War Pony’s striking authenticity and ambient compositions reinforce the film’s empathy and care for the stories it is telling.

War Pony follows the lives of two young men living on a reservation, both played by a pair who live there in real life: Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) is a charming 23-year-old, always hustling to make money; 12-year-old Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder) spends his days running riot with friends and has issues with his drug dealing father. Their lives only interlock briefly at the end of War Pony, but their experiences are rife with similarities. Bill and Matho are of different ages, but they are both two youngsters navigating their way into manhood amidst a difficult society bogged down by poverty, violence, and drug abuse.

War Pony has an exquisite sense of place, one which is backed by an authentic ebb and flow similar to Chloe Zhao’s Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider. At times, the naturalistic neighbourhoods and humanity Keough and Gammell capture wouldn’t be out of place in a Terrence Malick film due to the warm hues and lighting and the backing of soaring, almost spiritual music by Christopher Stracy and Mato Wayuhi. Their directing gives War Pony an invigorated organicity, a free-flowing style that celebrates realism and improvisation.

Keough and Gammell’s film impressively navigates the intense highs and lows of Bill and Matho’s ever-propellant lives, and in a broader sense, it portrays the cyclical or hereditary nature of violence and drug abuse. Matho, in particular, sees his father commit acts of abuse and, in the very next scene, will be doing something similar. The lack of help – either from elders or wider society – is striking and gut-wrenching.

When Bill meets and subsequently works for Tim (Sprague Hollander), a white man living in an opulent house on vast farmland near the reservation, War Pony becomes even more interesting, morphing into a tale of differing fortunes based on race. The white man is powerful, always in command of Bill and his friends, their relationship is never anything more than exploitative. These cracks in their relationship come out more harshly and obviously, as the film progresses.

War Pony starts promisingly, with early scenes, in particular, a joy to watch with their improvised feel and compelling performances, but the film’s strong worldbuilding and characterisation are ultimately unable to carry the weight of an unrefined plot. It is a story that culminates in an overwrought ending, a shoddy, poorly executed finale with possibly the worst needle drop of the year, which feels severely ill-placed in the context of the rest of War Pony’s subtlety and poise.

War Pony’s loose dynamism and free-wheeling nature are alluring at first but contribute to this confused, almost melodramatic direction that the film eventually takes, despite Reddy and Bob’s own experiences feeding into the screenplay’s strong authenticity. Keough and Gammell show a keen eye for navigating important stories in a humanistic and grounded way; their uncertainty in how to fully execute and structure them on screen are just as notable.

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