Neither Wolf Nor Dog, directed by Steven Lewis Simpson and written by Kent Neburn and Simpson from Neburn’s novel of the same name, has had a unique journey to the screen. A quiet and contemplative drama, this film will give audiences nostalgia for an era of movie that is long gone.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about this film is the way in which it was made. This movie was self-distributed and began its run over two and a half years ago, playing predominantly in smaller cities nationwide as a grassroots campaign to bring this film to the audience who would appreciate it most. Now, as the movie begins its expansion into larger cities, it has that goodwill from the audience from the play it has received since 2017, making it a true outlier, even among indies.
The story of the film follows a writer who is summoned by a Lakota elder on the last stretch of his life to write a book about his people and his experiences. Although having the wise elder impart their wisdom onto a young cultural outsider isn’t an uncommon arc (the worst of which can turn into the “Magical Negro” stereotype), this movie does it in a way that feels refreshingly earnest and sincere.
Ultimately, the message of the film is similar to any other road movie involving a white protagonist and a minority companion going on a journey together: people need to look at the world in a different way. However, unlike less successful attempts at telling a similar story, Neither Wolf Nor Dog does not feel apologetic. It does not justify the historical actions of white Americans against the Native Americans, nor does it attempt to pass off the blame as someone else’s. As such, the message feels a lot more natural than it does in other cases.
That said, the movie also meanders a lot more than other road movies. Road movies are the epitome of the classic adage that it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. The interactions that occur between the characters and the people they encounter on their journey are somewhat repetitive, though, causing the film to drag more than once.
The character development in the movie could have also been stronger. Although we are easily able to form a connection with the Lakota elder character because the film centers around him telling his story, it is much more difficult to connect with the protagonist. The movie offers a cursory glance into his family life, but more often than not, the emotional tendencies of the film feel very one-sided.
The late Dave Bald Eagle is wonderful in his supporting role. His passion and understanding of the script is obvious, making him feel perfectly cast in the role. More times than one, he is the force carrying a significant amount of the movie’s emotional weight. The supporting cast that surrounds him, including Christopher Sweeney and Richard Ray Whitman, is also good, but Dave Bald Eagle is certainly the star of the show.
On a technical level, the film is definitely very strong. The cinematography is simple but elegant, taking full advantage of the South Dakotan landscape in which it is set. Simpson, like the characters of the movie, clearly has a respect for the land and the culture which he is depicting. Hopefully audiences will leave the film feeling the same way.
Thanks to a strong performance by Dave Bald Eagle, Neither Wolf Nor Dog manages to stand out despite its relatively common arc. It really is a miracle that a movie like this found its way to theaters in this age, but that makes it all the more important to see it while you can.
Neither Wolf Nor Dog opens in Los Angeles as a part of its ongoing theatrical release on September 13.