THROUGH BLACK SPRUCE has one scene where a character walks through wooded black spruce. There is something subtle about the scene though one can not be 100% clear what the meaning of it all is. The same thing can be said overall of Canadian actor/director Don McKellar’s (LAST NIGHT) mesh of missing persons mystery and indigenous people statement. The film is an ambitious and diligent work but the two genres fit uncomfortably in a somewhat drab thriller, not for want of trying.
There are two things going for McKellar’s movie. The first is the beautiful and stunning Ontario landscape of James Bay. The shots of the lakes, forests and vegetation are typical of the beast scenery Ontario, Canada has to offer. The second is the impressive performances of the film’s indigenous cast. Veteran Graham Greene returns as well as the Toronto Film Critic’s Association’s darling (they recently honoured her), Tantoo Cardinal as well as Brandon Oakes. New is Tanaya Beatty in the title role of Cree woman Annie Bird.
The film is bookended by the violent beating of Annie’s Uncle, Uncle Will (Oakes) of a golf club by the local drug dealer. The golf club is one of the most awful weapons used in film – the last time it was used was when Randy Quiard took out Sandy Dennis, the school councillor in PARENTS. The story of what happens in between is the movie.
Suzanne, Annie’s sister has gone missing after chasing her modelling career in Toronto. The subplot emphasizes Canada’s major problem of missing indigenous women. Annie stays in Toronto hunting for clues for her missing sister. She learns of her sister’s drug habits including some shady dealings with ex-drug dealer boyfriend Gus. In the mean time, she has a mild romantic fling with her sister’s last photographer, the fast-rising Jesse (Kiowa Gordon) before thing with the sister started falling apart.
In the mean time, Uncle Will takes off on his plane despite not having a void pilot’s license for a decade up north into hunting territory for reason revealed at the end of the film. These segments are interspersed with Annie’s mis-adventures in Toronto. The two segments do not flow well, and the dramatic effects of each are lost when the segments change. Thankfully, all makes sense at he film’s climax when all is explained.
Despite the film’s flaws, credit must be given to McKellar for mounting such an ambitious indigenous film. The hunting scenes especially the ones with the grizzly bear and the moose’s carcass bring authenticity into the story.
The Toronto famed scenes are also well done. McKellar seems fond of Toronto’s Queen Street where streetcars frequent (as observed by an overturned streetcar in LAST NIGHT). The club scene with the throbbing vibes whee Annie gets totally stoned look chic and trendy.
Not a total miss and not without its intrinsic pleasures, THROUGH BLACK SPRUCE is an entertaining mystery while shedding a little isight on the troubles of the indigenous people of Canada.