He don’t even break the branches where he’s gone.
Once I saw him in the moonlight, when the bats were a flying.
I saw the werewolf, and the werewolf was crying.
— Cat Power, “Werewolf”
In Skinwalkers, there are two kinds of skinwalkers. As told by young narrator Timothy (Matthew Knight), some of them see their bloodlust as a curse, and others, more colorfully, “embrace the power of the beast.” Being, essentially, werewolves with a Navajo backstory, all the skinwalkers tend to hang out in the American West, granting Jim Isaac’s film some brief picturesque scenery. Good thing, as it is otherwise afflicted with a remarkable doltishness. A horror movie made for dummies, it conveys every would-be tension, every plot point, and every exchanged glance in excruciating slow motion.
Tim opens the film by noting that, while most people don’t like to face “things so frightening,” he (and so, you, now that you’re here) has no choice: “The truth is, they’re out there, and closer than we fear.” Extra close to Tim, who has something of a daywalker’s relationship to the skinwalkers, being of mixed blood, human and beast. The prophecy says that when he turns 13, the moon will turn red and either the embracers will be defeated or ascendant, all glowy yellow eyes and hairy chests, loosed to consume any flesh they want. Tim, four days from so turning, doesn’t know this yet; neither does his human mom Rachel (Rhona Mitra), even though they have lived since Tim’s birth with her dead husband’s relatives, including his brother Jonas (Elias Koteas) and sweet-smiling Nana (Barbara Gordon), as well as Jonas’ daughter Kat (Sarah Carter), her beau Adam (Shawn Roberts), and the black werewolf, Doak (Lyriq Bent), whose un-humanness looks pretty obvious. I mean, every full moon—for nearly 13 years—they have locked themselves in a van and howled all night, strapped up in harnesses by their Native American minder, Will (Tom Jackson).
Rachel has noticed, however, that Tim, is “special,” owning to recurring nightmares and asthma attacks (apparently related, as he only has trouble breathing after a nightmare), cured when the indispensable Will shows up with a plate of smelly roots). It’s actually something of a miracle that she’s stayed all these years on the farm, given how terminally banal it all looks: Nana watches from the porch as Tim greets mailman Doak (“What’s up dawg!?”), and Kat appears on cue with a plate o’ muffins, big fakey smile on her face. All very Stepfordy, and not a little creepy.
Still, Rachel heads off to work at the general store, clueless until the embracers ride into town on their big motorcycles. Led by scruffy-faced Varek (Jason Behr) and the alarmingly cleavaged Sonja (Natassia Malthe), they glory in their menace, long stringy hair floating in the slow-mo wind machine and sunglasses hiding their stunning lack of affect (they even bring along their own black guy, Grenier [Rogue Johnston]—and you can have one guess which one dies first). On spotting Nana on the sidewalk with Tim, Varek hits her with a very, very dramatic and lengthy glare, the camera cutting back and forth repeatedly, as he pulls out his guns, she pulls out her gun, and then, one by one and in slow motion too, everyone in town pulls out a gun, from Andy to Granier to the fat-bellied grocer. Even Tim picks one up, as Nana tells him she’ll explain the shootout later, but for now, he needs to learn how to load.
You’d think that now that the action has commenced, that the explanations might fall away: you get the main idea: the kid’s adolescence makes his blood valuable. He’s John Connor without Sarah; though Rachel does proclaim her desire to protect her child, she’s flustered and frustrated. Hiding from skulky killer Zo (Kim Coates) in Ye Olde Saddle Shoppe, she shuts her eyes in hopes she won’t be seen. When she demands an explanation from Jonas, her face barely changes expression as he tries: “”We are all skinwalkers. It’s really quite simple: they’re skinwalkers, but not like us.” To emphasize, he makes her and Tim watch a night of transformation, during which he and the others are harnessed up and howling. Rachel is disgusted and appalled, while Tim walks to Jonas, all wolfy-faced, with tears in his eyes. “Uncle Jonas!” he cries, reaching up to touch the monster’s chest.
Enough child trauma: cut to the next scene. In the Last Chance Saloon, a pair of hard-drinking patrons decide to rape the waitress, until they’re interrupted by the embracers, who show up for a late night feeding. So you know they’re really bad, after dispatching with the thugs, Varek approaches the horrified girl. She screams. Enough girl trauma, apparently, for the film cuts to another image, Varek having lusty sex with Sonja, maybe — at least he doesn’t engage in explicit bloody chewing. The exchange of violence for sex and back again doesn’t so much complicate the skinwalkers’ instincts or desires, as it rehashes tiresome images and ideas, borrowed from vampire, werewolf, and father-son anxiety movies.
That Rachel is so unremarkable and eventually irrelevant only makes Tim’s saga especially lonely. As his skinwalker relatives betray, avenge, and kill one another, one after another, the film doesn’t grant him a moral or a learning curve. Instead, he’s got a showdown to observe, between Jonas and Varek, each invested in his singular righteousness and willing to sacrifice anyone to prove it. The climactic battle between iddy-addicted wolfman and moralistic-self-denying wolfman, set in an abandoned warehouse that comes complete with a grandfather’s clock to chime at midnight, is yelpy and growly, dimly lit and poorly edited. Maybe the confusion emulates Tim’s sudden, frightening shift into responsibility — lycanthropy as metaphor. Or maybe it’s just shoddy filmmaking.