Virgil First Raise wakes in a ditch on the hardscrabble plains of Montana, hungover and badly beaten. He sees a shocking vision: his father, ten years dead, lying frozen at his feet. Shaken, Virgil returns home to his ranch on the Reservation, only to find that his wife, Agnes, has left him. Worse, she’s taken his beloved rifle.
Virgil sets out to town find her— or perhaps just the gun— beginning a hi-line odyssey of inebriated and improbable intrigues with the mysterious Airplane Man, his beautiful accomplice, Malvina, and two dangerous Men in Suits. Virgil’s quest also brings him face-to-face with childhood memories, traumas and visions of his long lost brother Mose.
Virgil, bloodied and broken by his quest, realizes that he must look inward for the strength he needs to survive. In the mountains, he seeks out Yellow Calf— an old blind man, who helps him grasp the truth of his origins. By embracing— and no longer fleeing— his memories, Virgil is finally able to thaw the ice in his veins.
Winter in the Blood was the first of five novels written by James Welch, a Native American poet, author, documentary scriptwriter and historical essayist. Winter in the Blood has long been acknowledged as a primary voice in the Native American Renaissance. It has remained in print for over thirty-five years and is a cornerstone of the Penguin Classics canon. Welch’s total book sales worldwide number over half a million. Equally impressive, Welch’s loyal, diverse, and multi-generational fan base has driven his novels to be translated into eight languages and ensured that they remain mainstays in Native American, Indigenous Studies, and Western Literature classes in universities across the United States, Canada and abroad.
Learn more about James and his story in our Tribute to James Welch.
As children, we had the rare privilege to grow up knowing the the late, great James Welch, author of Winter in the Blood and four other novels. Jim was a life-long friend, a mentor, and a profound influence on our own writing.
As teenagers, we read the novel for the first time, hungrily absorbing its humor, its heartbreak, its surreal Hi-Line highs and lows. Jim’s words spoke to us so deeply on so many levels. Like the narrator of Winter In the Blood, we grew up in Montana, isolated on a decaying ranch; suffered the premature death of our father; were surrounded by the storms of alcoholism; and survived via a deep brotherly connection. Jim’s novel told us: “You are not alone.” It has had this effect on many readers.
After we left Montana, rereading it became a way of “coming home”— a form of solace, and a connection to where we came from. Just as the narrator pursues boozy corridors and romantic misadventures before finding the right road home, Jim’s words helped us transcend our own detours, dust-ups and emotional dead ends.
Artists hunt what haunts them. Filmmakers make the films they most need to see. This film has been one long devoted vision + quest to translate Welch’s world— the raw, emotionally honest characters, the richly marbled tragicomic plot, and the gorgeous high plains landscape— to the big screen.The novel Winter in the Blood is a true classic— unique, universal, timeless, uncompromising, open. It touches people in a profound, life-changing, way, and has remained in print in at least eight languages for 35 years, because it is a story of survival and recovery. It serves as a map of healing to generations of readers around the world. Our desire has always been to expose this hilarious, unflinching, ferocious story to a worldwide audience in the collective dreamhouse of cinema.
Jim’s ‘intimate epic’ began as a poem— a travelogue, an introduction to the place he was from— and became a novel along the way. We carried on this translation, shooting the film in the poetry of cinema, and shooting it in the precise towns, reservations, and landscapes from which it was written. Enlisting an incredible cast and crew, experts all in achieving an authentic portrayal of the lost world of Jim’s novel, we were able to capture Welch’s vision at 24 frames-per-second: the “true west” wide screen terrain; the silver nitrate etch of Indian children playing cowboy in the rain; the long-lens dreamscape of memory, trauma and motion; the dizzying splice of mountain, prairie, and fade away; larks, beetles, hawks, good cow horses and crazy-eyed cattle; burnt aspen forests, abandoned homesteads, unmarked graves; the bone chill of winter wind juxtaposed against the welcome thaw of a spring chinook; the best song on the jukebox, the coldest beer in town, the dizzying green lust of a crème de menthe kiss.
All dreams are true. We have dreamed this one alive, realizing it in a fashion that allows us to be true to this truest of novels. We shot it where the novel was born— on the Hi-Line of Montana— in Havre, Chinook, and on the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy Reservations, and all points between— with strong community and tribal involvement. Indeed, this film was created as much by the place— the people, the land, the weather, and some presiding angels— as it was by our amazing cast & crew. We want nothing more than for our collaborators— so many creative powers working together on a common dream— and our audience— to know this world’s stark, giant, particular beauty— to be able to call it ‘true to home‘.
—Alex & Andrew Smith