Dark Winds Review: Original, engrossing, deadly

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A gritty tale of murder set against the background of Native American culture: Kiowa Gordon and Jessica Matten star in a scene from the drama Dark Winds. PHOTO: CNS, Michael Moriatis, Stalwart Productions, AMC
A gritty tale of murder set against the background of Native American culture: Kiowa Gordon and Jessica Matten star in a scene from the drama Dark Winds. PHOTO: CNS, Michael Moriatis, Stalwart Productions, AMC

By Chris Byrd

The psychological thriller Dark Winds comes backed by some celebrated names. Author George R.R. Martin of Game of Thrones fame, as well as legendary actor Robert Redford are listed among its executive producers.

And this pedigree, it turns out, delivers substantive rewards.

One of the limited series’ outstanding assets is its realistic yet sympathetic portrait of Native Americans.

Another – attributable, perhaps, to the Catholic faith of Tony Hillerman, the writer on whose series of novels the drama draws – is a pro-life subplot.

The show premiered in early June, with the whole series accessible via streaming from 10 July.

“One of the limited series’ outstanding assets is its realistic yet sympathetic portrait of Native Americans.”

Created by Graham Roland (Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan), Dark Winds is set in 1971 on the Monument Valley Navajo Reservation.

There, tribal police chief Joe Leaphorn (Zahn McClarnon) is dealing with two sudden tragedies, the violent murder of senior citizen Hosteen Tso (Harrison Lowe) and the inexplicable death of 19-year-old Anna Attcity (Shawnee Pourier).

Leaphorn feels compelled to ask the FBI to investigate. But the agent in charge – known simply as Whitover (Noah Emmerich) – displays little interest in solving the mysteries, aside from wanting to connect them to an armoured truck robbery that happened in nearby Gallup, New Mexico, three weeks earlier.

Eager for leads on the theft, Whitover plants Navajo agent Jim Chee (Kiowa Gordon) as a deputy on Leaphorn’s force.

Having grown up on the reservation, Chee finds his loyalties divided between his bosses at the bureau and the people among whom he was raised.

This leads to conflict between Leaphorn and Chee. The former also is in a tense relationship with Anna’s father, Guy (Ryan Begay). Before his tragic death in an oil refinery accident three years earlier, Leaphorn’s son, Joe Jr. (Hataalinez El Wheeler), had been dating Anna.

Like Peacock’s uneven Rutherford Falls and the Paramount Network’s grievously flawed Yellowstone, Roland’s series seeks to correct false cultural impressions about Native Americans. Thus, as embodied by Joe, they come across as neither improbably noble nor cartoonishly brutish.

Generally good-hearted Joe is capable of giving in to anger and resentment. But that simply means he’s fully human – complex and even self-contradictory.

Viewers of faith will find both admirable aspects to Dark Winds and some troubling material within it.

Teen Sally Growing Thunder (Elva Guerra), for instance, is in need of nurturing. She finds it in the person of Joe’s wife, local clinic head Nurse Emma (Deanna Allison) who cares for Sally in a manner that affirms human dignity.

“The theme of criminality, while approached without excess, does entail an amount of mayhem that makes Dark Winds most suitable for grown-ups.”

Joe’s criticism of his parish school experience, by contrast, may rankle some Catholic TV fans. Attempting to assimilate Joe, the sisters who taught there “cut my hair, took my clothes,” he says. Still, he and Emma did have a church wedding.

The theme of criminality, while approached without excess, does entail an amount of mayhem that makes Dark Winds most suitable for grown-ups.

They’ll find the dialogue generally free of coarse or profane language while any sexual activity integrated into the story takes place offscreen.

The storied landscape of Monument Valley served as the backdrop of many Westerns – a genre that traditionally tended to mythologise the American frontier in ways that often dehumanised Native people.

As it seeks to redress that unfortunate legacy, Dark Winds will find a ready audience among those anxious for a more accurate portrayal.