‘War Pony’ Review: The Sad Absurdities of Reservation Life

Riley Keough and Gina Gammell’s stellar debut, starring many first-time actors, takes a deadpan look at a Lakota-Sioux reservation in South Dakota.

By Amy Nicholson

The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Lakota-Sioux, has one of the highest poverty rates and shortest life expectancies in the United States. Over 80 percent of adults are unemployed. “War Pony,” a stellar debut from Riley Keough and Gina Gammell, written in collaboration with two of its residents, Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, has every right to be a furious tragedy.

Instead, it’s a slacker comedy that swaps punchlines for laid-back, lived-in absurdities. The jokes land so feather-light you’re not sure if you should laugh. Likewise, the characters barely register the film’s larger social criticisms — they just take their lumps and get on with things. As Sioux Bob told The Associated Press shortly before “War Pony” won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes, “All this outlandish stuff you see in the movie, that was Tuesday.”

The story follows 23-year-old Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting), who has fathered two toddlers with two women, one of whom he has left languishing in jail for lack of a $400 bail. “I don’t have time for this,” Bill huffs. In truth, he’s got nothing but time. The whole film, in fact, exists in a temporal blur, the kind of sunny, shiftless inertia where it’s unclear if the Halloween decorations were put up early or never put away at all.

Bill has no prospects on the yawning horizon other than a vague scheme to sell purebred poodles. (He doesn’t even own a dog.) And then there’s 12-year-old Matho (LaDainian Crazy Thunder), who is stoked to start hawking his father’s meth. (“Pleasure doing business with you and your donkey!” he beams at a customer.)

The queasy truth is that Bill is more concerned about his hypothetical puppies than his actual children, but Whiting, sporting his own tattoos, holds the camera’s attention so effortlessly that we’re rooting for him anyway. The audience likes him better than every other character does, including his exes who’ve moved past exasperation to apathy. Whether Bill is a villain or a victim depends on his framing — and “War Pony” refuses to take a side.

Here, opposites coexist. Horses share the street with beat-up junkers. Lakota elders chant blessings over conked-out party girls. Kids adorn ball caps with eagle quills while trap music harmonizes with buzzing crickets. Above all, the community, played almost entirely by first-time actors, is quite literally a supportive tribe, even as the families and homes within it fall apart, reconfigure themselves, and fall apart again.

None of this seems funny, but as seen through Bill’s deadpan gaze, it is, such as when he goes off the reservation and crosses paths with a wealthy housewife who cheerily asks, “So you got any holiday plans this year?” And whenever the film seems uncertain of its next move, a bison or deer shows up onscreen — a magician’s distraction disguised as symbolism — that is, until the last sequence, when an animal-centric prank rewrites a page of American history.

War Pony
Rated R for underage drinking, drug use, cursing and carousing. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. In theaters.

War Pony

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