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3 out of 4 stars

Country
USA
Language
English

The Snow Walker

Directed and written

by Charles Martin Smith

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Starring Barry Pepper

and Annabella Piugattuk

Classification: PG

Rating: ***

As predicable as the annual fall of the Maple Leafs, but considerably more tragic, as traditional as the recurring scam of political patronage, but a lot more compelling, The Snow Walker is a vintage slice of Canadiana. Its story is the one that has dominated our culture since the outset -- your basic tale of survival, man against the elements, human nature at its strongest versus Mother Nature at her harshest.

Of course, many have argued that, several hundred years of urbanization later, with most of us crowded into cozy cities perched as far south as the map allows, this tale has lost all its relevance. And they're right -- logically but not emotionally. Even for suit-and-tied folks crossing Bay Street clutching a Starbucks latte, an icy blast is nonetheless an icy blast. So, to anyone who has felt but a little of winter's sting, a well-told survival tale still has the power to burrow past our modern minds and into our primordial hearts.

It's definitely well told here. Since the source is a short story by Farley Mowat, the setting is as lost in the barrens as a body can get -- way up north in the high Arctic. There, circa 1953, a bush pilot named Charlie is busy living up (and down) to the clichés of the breed. He's cocky, at least when not tormented by residual thoughts from the recent world war. He's horny, a womanizer who beds the local babes only to leave them in his propeller dust. He's bigoted, content to treat the Inuit natives much as his government does -- as no more than faceless digits on their "Eskimo tag number." And he's entrepreneurial, eager to supplement his aviator's income with multiple dealings on the shady side.

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Yes, the character is stock, but the actor isn't. Happily for us, Barry Pepper is on hand to breathe fire into this still-life. Canadian-bred, and already a veteran of some high-profile films -- Saving Private Ryan, The Green Mile, 25th Hour, the HBO feature 61* -- Pepper is that rarest of combinations: a screen magnet with talent. The camera loves him, and he knows what to do with that love -- manipulating it and us wonderfully. Thanks to him, this isn't any old Charlie, but a very specific Chuck who's hateful, who's likable, who's fun to watch.

Cue his literal downfall. Deviating from the flight plan, he lands his plane to pursue one of those shady deals, and finds to his surprise a lone Inuit family asking for help. Their teenage daughter is sick, probably tubercular. They gesture across the language barrier: Will he fly her to a Yellowknife hospital? Charlie refuses, until the pot is sweetened with a lucrative pair of ivory tusks. He and the girl take to the air. An engine cuts out, and -- in a tautly dramatic sequence -- the plane spirals out of control, tumbling into the late-summer shallows of a small lake. Both survive the crash, but those looming elements await them. Our tale begins.

Guiding it is actor-turned-director Charles Martin Smith, who once starred in Carol Ballard's adaptation of another Mowat book, Never Cry Wolf. Ballard is a visual genius whose specialty -- in pictures such as The Black Stallion, Wind and Fly Away Home -- is capturing the schizoid nature of Nature, its abiding grace coupled with its attendant menace. Shooting on location, and clearly trying to emulate his mentor, Smith proves himself a worthy enough student, even capable of flashes of brilliance.

Watch for these beautifully paired scenes. First, from inside the still-healthy plane, we're given a sweeping aerial shot of the vast tundra dotted by a surging herd of caribou -- there, the pilot is the master of all he surveys. Later, on the ground, after Charles has abandoned the girl to fend for himself, we get a panoramic shot, equally sweeping, of the same pilot entirely dwarfed by a landscape that stretches to infinity -- here, the proud overseer is reduced to abject slave, a speck in the unblinking eye of his monstrous surroundings.

From that point, modern man, bare and unaccommodated, must be redeemed by his ancient forebear, fur-coated and adaptable. So, when a spent Charlie tumbles into unconsciousness, it's the consumptive girl (Annabella Piugattuk) who comes to his rescue -- the sick nursing the sicker. From her, he learns the timeless art of survival, and the deep wisdom embedded in a culture that no longer seems primitive. Again, this is conventional fare, but Pepper and Piugattuk work together so affectingly, and Smith directs so succinctly, that a simple yarn reacquires much of its unvarnished eloquence.

Sure, there are flaws en route. Our stranded protagonists get bathed in a few too many glorious sunsets. And the girl's command of English, rudimentary at the start, miraculously expands whenever the script demands it. But the compensations are never far away. For example, the occasional flashbacks to the war -- to Charlie's bombing runs over darkened cities -- look gratuitous at first. However, their value as counterpoint emerges during an extraordinary sequence where that herd of caribou suddenly appears in a thick morning mist. Their hopes revived, two starving souls lash out at the beasts, sticking spears through the shroud of white and staining themselves red with the kill. Only now, in this bloody mist, do the bombing scenes seem purposeful -- quietly, evocatively, the fog of war has given way to the fog of life.

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Even when the screenplay stoops to quoting those hackneyed and hubristic lines, "I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth," Smith performs a rescue job of his own, intercutting with delicate irony from the recited poem to a dazzling display of Northern Lights -- the Earth's surly bonds transfigured by the sky's shimmering magic. The whole film, especially the restrained pathos of the ending, is like that -- just when you think The Snow Walker is merely another slog into a trodden wilderness, it takes an illuminating turn. Yes, the survival tale endures, and sometimes prevails.

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