Structured like a film noir the story begins at the end with Saul Indian Horse (Ajuawak Kapashesit) in rehab, recounting the details of his life. “You can’t understand where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been,” he says.
Flashback to 1959. Saul is orphaned and left in the care of his grandmother before being scooped up and sent to the St James Residential School. Ripped away from his family and culture he says, “The world I had known was replaced by a black cloud.” Indigenous children had their mouths washed out with soap for speaking Ojibwe, names changed to “good biblical names“ and were disciplined with paddles and fists. When that didn’t work, they were sent to “contrition,” a dank basement prison. “Our goal here is to help you succeed in this world,” says Father Quinney (Michael Murphy).
A school in only the loosest sense of the word, piousness was valued above everything else. “The only test was our ability to endure,” Saul says. The youngster survives in part because of his love of hockey. Teaching himself to skate, he uses frozen horse manure as make-do pucks. Despite his young age he has an innate ability, honed by watching hockey on TV, and can outplay the older boys. With the encouragement of kindly priest Father Gaston (“Game of Thrones’” Michiel Huisman) he flourishes and is soon recruited to an outside league where his ability attract the attention of Toronto Maple Leafs recruiter Jack Lanahan (Martin Donovan).
In the big city he is subjected to abject racism and feels even more removed from his cultural roots. “There is no better life for me,” he says to Lanahan. “There never will be.”
“Indian Horse’s” portrayal of the cruelties of the residential school system is uncompromising and horrific. It’s not overly graphic but the human effects of the humiliating and dangerous treatment the students were subjected to are undeniable and unforgettable. Director Stephen Campanelli—Clint Eastwood’s steadicam operator from “The Bridges of Madison County” to the recent “The 15:17 to Paris”—sets the stage for Saul’s later-in-life trauma with matter-of-fact storytelling and characters that embody the results of cultural alienation.
Overall the film could use a little more nuance but there is no denying the important and timely nature of the story.