Dances with Wolves (1990, Kevin Costner)
!!!!! AVOID !!!!!
Assuming you’re not involved in “the Industry” (and I think that’s safe since you probably have lots of better things to do in that case than read the meanderings of internet psychopaths), you’re really not built to understand this phenomenon. The great actorly vanity project, the one that’s gonna Mean Something, is part of the pseudo-underdog narrative that movie people thrive on. Warren Beatty had Reds, Robert Redford and Paul Newman had their this and that, and this thing is kind of a panicked race up to the starting line on the part of one Kevin Costner, whose star didn’t even shine all that brightly yet as of 1989 when he got soon-to-be-defunct Orion on board with this. Costner cared about something, got the funding together, made an “epic” “Hollywood” “film” out of it — pretty pictures, too — but it’s all amateur night here. The film’s PC struggling with the western is one of a whole breed of feature-length apologies for the existence of the genre itself, and that’s setting aside its sheer ineptitude and silliness, both of which shadow everything enough that those of us not “in town” are almost destined not to be able to look at it as a legitimate piece of popcraft, or pop or craft at all.
When I first saw Dances with Wolves, it was because I was forced to watch it for an English class in ninth grade — the curriculum had some convoluted connection to a book we were reading (not the somewhat obscure novel upon which the movie itself is based). To the extent I paid it much attention, I hated it and found it horribly dull. The second time I saw it, it was because I was forced to watch it for an English class in eleventh grade, and I don’t think there was any particular reason at all except to give me a hard time and also we watched lots of videos in that class. Both experiences were agonizing as movie-watchin’ times go, but I think maybe I was a little too harsh then; folly of youth and all that. You can’t really fault Costner for believing in himself here; it’s sort of adorable in a way, and though it’s still difficult to sit through this, it does offer more pleasure than I remembered simply because its ridiculous earnestness is so damn amusing. But its threadbare tale of an accidentally heroic Union soldier and his encounters with an understandably suspicious Sioux tribe nearby is too careful, too silly, and frankly too condescending to be the kind of revelatory neo-western (with, of course, an even-handed modernist perspective) Costner envisions. It falls down flat as everything except a vanity project, and those don’t exactly hold broad appeal.
Costner spends a lot of time letting himself look ridiculous — it’s just he doesn’t seem to be aware of it. He lights himself and his round bum with the romance of old Hollywood; we’re meant to gaze up at his ten foot-tall face and be stirred anew and repeatedly by his Boldness for all that he has accomplished here. But try not to laugh at his rampant self-love — he makes sure to include shots of his own gazing upward at shooting stars, shirking the annoyance of a peasant guide he’s hired on, and faithfully rendering them in his diary, from which we’re treated to one of cinema’s goofiest voiceover narrations throughout the film, all read in classic California valley dude deadpan. Costner’s in over his head; the director too dumb to read aloud the script he’s supposed to be filming is somewhere in the neighborhood with the basketball player leading the school to glory despite a D average, including in gym. No, I’m serious — Costner is kinda dumb, right? There’s no other explanation for how he structures the words in his readings of things like “Men had been living in these caves but why?” as though he’s in some sort of terrible rush but still wants to be an honorary romanticist. The foreplay in the Dances with Wolves bedroom is a mediocre affair indeed.
The sex is worse. Would you like to know where the wolves in the title come from? I am pleased you asked me this question. Of course, you can discern without seeing the film (along with most everything else about it) that “Dances with Wolves” is eventually Costner’s Sioux name after he becomes “one of them,” this having been inspired by a ludicrous sequence wherein he does exactly that, having in turn been moved and altered by witnessing traditional Sioux dancing and recreating it himself in one of the most laughable moments ever shot in a major motion picture, with appropriate slow-mo and the music of Enigma (probably). All the while he is observed by Two Socks. Two Socks, you see, is a wolf that lives nearby and comes around periodically to cock its head at whatever dumb thing Costner is currently doing. (I realize his character has a name. It doesn’t matter. He is Kevin Costner, as he is in all of his terrible movies.) Earlier on we learned from Costner’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid entry that he had upon first observing the wolf decided its name would be Two Socks “if he comes calling tomorrow.” That makes sense. So I guess he does, and Two Socks it is, and there’s your wolf. But the point is: the director and star, dancing around a fire, and this was taken seriously.
Meanwhile, all this time we have been waiting. Waiting for what. Ah yes, the Sioux tribe attempting to secure Costner’s aid in defending themselves against a convoy of American soldiers, after a lot of tense negotiations and an affair with a white lady and some other stuff. The Natives get the classic noble-savage stereotyping and it’s a real horror, but how can you stay mad when you have that hilarious slow motion flashback of Mary McDonnell being captured years earlier? Or Costner’s impression of Lakota class discussion whereby one person says something and everyone else grunts and nods, which is probably an accurate rendering of what production meetings on this project were like. Also, when he jumps, that too is inevitably in slow motion, and if he’d made a documentary about himself directing the picture — as I’m sure he wished he could — we’d have had slow-mo Kevin Costner preproduction, arguing about shooting schedules and lunch breaks, editing dailies, etc.
Lots of other weird shit happens in this who really cares, you get the point, and it’s over three fucking hours and there’s a longer version. (Interestingly, Costner claims he had nothing to do with the four-hour director’s cut, which inevitably begs the question of how much of a hand he had in the final product to begin with?? No, of course he directed the picture, cause no actual professional could ever have put this Plan 9 from Wyoming shit together in good conscience.) It doesn’t really merit the kind of ire that it should if you take its PC pandering seriously and if you’re as automatically bored by this sort of florid Lawrence of Arabia-lite picture postcard cinema as I am, because aside from Paul Haggis’ Crash, it’s the premier accidental comedy of the Academy Awards, its major wins at which are now the only reason anyone remembers it who doesn’t have some sentimental attachment or a blood relation to its producers. It’s subsequently been proven that the emperor has no ass, Costner is a hack and a ludicrous figurehead of the famous-for-no-reason school, and this was a humiliating error best left forgotten. A happy ending for all! And now you can watch it and laugh yourself silly for the first half. Then you realize you actually are expected to sit here for another ninety minutes and zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz — in high school as now, boredom is the worst cinematic crime of all, really.
There, that’s kind of a review, right?