Georgina Lightning is good – she can do ‘evil’ on a budget. And this is real evil: cruelty to children evil. As only the corrupt of the Catholic Church know how to enact. In this case Native American girls and boys are scalded, punished, tortured and silenced in the name of saving their immortal souls. Lightning, the writer and director of American Evil (2008), originally titled this film Older than America. In many ways that’s a better, more descriptive title, but understandably not as commercial.
This film is not a lecture about land rights or a moralising vision about injustices on a large political scale. Rather, it’s a pretty good thriller that presents the emotional and psychological anguish of a family from a personal and convincing angle. Lightning has amassed a cast of mostly Native American actors, with the European-American cast members in the peripheral roles – so a reversal of the usual casting dynamics. The storyline of battling against the adversity of their circumstances does not depend on the white characters coming to the rescue of the disenfranchised Reservation dwellers.
What this film does well, in fact brilliantly well, is show how the processes of diagnosing mental illness can be abused and used as a weapon to oppress. This is what makes the film more of a melodrama (and I use that term in admiration) that revisits and requisitions tropes from the 19th-century.
So this is not so much a response to Dances with Wolves (1990) or anything of the like, as a re-working of Wilkie Collins’s 1860 serial novel The Woman in White, or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper (1892). In both narratives, especially the latter, the plight of women in the 19th century is explored from the perspective of the (mis)diagnosis of psychiatric conditions in order to control their behaviour and prevent them from supposedly harming themselves, but what that actually entails is control of their property and identity. The ‘wife’ in Gilman’s semi-autobiographical story is in a similar predicament to the women in Lightning’s film who are compelled to try and prove their sanity. It’s a way of silencing them and preventing their exposure of abuse and injustice.
The interlacing storyline employed by Lightning is handled subtly and the characters are naturalistic and not glamorised. Particularly good is Adam Beach as Johnny, the law enforcement officer on the Reservation who has ambitions to join the FBI, but must endure the casual discrimination from coordinators and supervisors of his resources that prevents him from doing the best job he can. However, he is as much a victim of the medical and spiritual authorities who convince him of his fiancée’s delusional state of mind.
Strong female roles are a refreshing change; with Irene (Rose Berens) as central protagonist who is seemingly afflicted by an inherited strain of insanity – which actually amounts to her desire (like that of her mother and aunts) to speak the truth. Tantoo Cardinal as Auntie Apple is also notable, as is Lightning herself as Aunt Rain. But interestingly, it’s Bradley Cooper as Luke who appears in most of the publicity connected to the DVD release. Again, this seems like a compromise that has been forced upon the filmmaker, to enable this film to reach the wider audience it deserves. Cooper’s name above the title? Well, it would be like putting Cardinal’s name above the title in Dances with Wolves for her role as Black Shawl. Whilst undeniably in the film she was by no means the star. The same has to be said for Cooper in American Evil. The starring roles belong to Berens and Beach.
We’ve certainly come a long way in cinematic terms, but there is still a way to go. Lightning will help take us there.