A Thief of Time

A Thief of Time (DVD Cover)

Cast: Joe Leaphorn (Wes Studi), Jim Chee (Adam Beach), Emma Leaphorn (Sheila Tousey), Slick Nakai (Graham Greene), Harrison Houk (Peter Fonda)

Director: Chris Eyre

Original air date(s): 07/11/2004
DVD Date: 11/15/2005

Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 94 minutes

Note(s): Screenplay adapted from the novel A Thief of Time by Tony Hillerman.

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A Thief of Time

Review: In news items reporting the death of mystery author Tony Hillerman, it was noted that four of his books had been adapted into movies: The Dark Wind, Skinwalkers, Coyote Waits, and A Thief of Time. The latter three were made-for-television movies that aired on PBS Mystery! in 2002, 2003, and 2004. I remember seeing the second, and my recollection is I was impressed, but I hadn't seen the first or third.

Hillerman's mysteries feature two Navajo tribal police officers, the older Joe Leaphorn and the younger Jim Chee. Somewhat paradoxically, Leaphorn takes a more modern approach to the beliefs of his culture; Chee tends to take a more traditional view. Initially the characters appeared separately in Hillerman's books. A Thief of Time was only the second book in which they appeared together.

One of three field scientists who are studying the Anasazi culture has failed to return from an extended trip away from their camp. The other two scientists seem unconcerned, but Joe Leaphorn is worried. The missing scientist is thought to be dealing illegally obtained pottery on the black market. Meanwhile, Jim Chee is looking for a missing backhoe. The two cases intersect when the backhoe is found at the scene of two murders, men who were clearly digging for ancient pottery, artifacts highly prized by collectors.

Leaphorn's investigation takes him to a known fence of pottery and subsequently to two wealthy collectors, one of whom was likely the last person to see the missing woman. Chee's battling his own demons, urged by his girlfriend to accept a position in Washington with the Bureau of Indian Affairs but unwilling to leave his home in the Southwest. Leaphorn figures out what must have happened to the scientist but, trapped in forbidden territory, is unable to do anything about it.

The PBS Mystery! movies were executive produced by Robert Redford and display his trademark touch of a well told, leisurely paced story in a beautifully photographed setting. Wes Studi is excellent as the dedicated Joe Leaphorn; Adam Beach has a sort of charming innocence as Jim Chee. The other characters are less memorable. The panoramic vistas are stunning and add immeasurably to the story which, admittedly, is rather slow in places. When the focus is on the investigation, whether it be Joe Leaphorn's or Jim Chee's, there's something to keep the viewer's attention. When the focus drifts away, it's easy to be distracted. I realize that well-rounded movies have well-rounded characters, but here the personal scenes lack depth and interest and seem to exist as filler more than anything else. This is particularly true for Jim Chee whose relationship with his girlfriend is never credible.

Seeing A Thief of Time will prompt me to order the first one originally aired, Skinwalkers, before year's end. The movies (at least the two I've now seen) are well made, easy on the eye, have intricate plots that capture the viewer's imagination, and present appealing characters that make you want to see more.


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