Cast: Lt. Joe Leaphorn (Wes Studi), Jim Chee (Adam Beach), Emma Leaphorn (Sheila Tousey), Tommy Nakai (Nicholas Bartolo), Roman George (Harrison Lowe), Davis Nakai (Jon Proudstar), Nina (Misty Upham), Bobby (Drew Lacafa), Wilson Sam (Saginaw Grant), Capt. Butler (Apesanahkwat), Dr. Stone (Michael Greyeyes), Lonnie Mack (Ryan Polequaptewa), Ruben Maze (Noah Watts), Bister (James Dalgam)
Director: Chris Eyre
Original air date(s): 11/24/2002
DVD Date: 11/26/2002
Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 97 minutes
Note(s): Screenplay adapted from the novel Skinwalkers by Tony Hillerman.
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Review: Skinwalkers is the seventh mystery by Tony Hillerman to feature Joe Leaphorn or Jim Chee, but actually the first to include both characters in the storyline. A scene early in the film shows the two introducing themselves to each other at a crime scene.
Although Skinwalkers was the first of three film adaptations from Hillerman's books (the others being A Thief of Time and Coyote Waits), it is the final one I watched. I'm not exactly sure how I got them out of order, but other than the introduction between Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee mentioned above, there's no reason to see them in any particular order.
Leaphorn and Chee are investigating the murders of three medicine men who, other than their practice, seem to have nothing to connect them. That they've been killed by the same person seems obvious: an ancient depiction of a medicine man has been drawn near each of the bodies. An attempt is made on Chee's life, who was working as an apprentice to one of the dead men, but Leaphorn thinks his attack is different. A clue from an unexpected source leads Chee to suspect someone for the murders, but the motive remains elusive.
Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee make for an interesting partnership and are perfectly cast. Leaphorn is more experienced and cosmopolitan; he'd rather be working in Phoenix but his wife, who has cancer, wants to live on the reservation. Chee is young but embraces the old ways of his people. Each brings an unique perspective to their case, with Leaphorn using (at the time of filming) an early version of the internet to investigate skinwalkers and Chee linking the drawings to the ancient (and modern) practice of medicine.
Skinwalkers is beautifully filmed, though there are a few cases of odd stop-motion camera work that spoil the natural rhythm of the story. The background music is hauntingly appropriate. The weakest element of the film is the story itself, which goes off in directions that are probably supposed to be red herrings but end up seeming simply tangential and irrelevent. Though I have not read the book, it seems this is most likely due to a sloppy or faulty adaptation rather than the source material itself.
This series of made-for-television films are really quite entertaining, and while Skinwalkers may not be the best of the three, it is still quite exceptional.
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