From the start, director Costner embrues Dances with Wolves with melancholic tragedy. Even as Costner’s protagonist–a Union soldier reassigned to the frontier–travels west, seeing startling natural beauty, which Costner and cinematographer Dean Semler visualize carefully, enthusiastically, perfectly, there’s dread. Most of it comes from John Barry’s lush and haunting score, but Costner does make sure to juxtapose his character’s idyllic, solitary experience with the realities around him. The realities involve the residents of the frontier–the Native Americans–and the threat Costner represents.
Costner’s protagonist is one of the singular elements of Dances with Wolves. He’s a goof, but Costner–both as director and actor–never invites a laugh. He still gets them occasionally and paces to allow them, he just doesn’t invite them. The film runs three hours, with most of the first hour spent establishing Costner and the setting. The Sioux living nearby, who he eventually joins, are either figures on the horizon or unintelligible visitors. Of course, the Sioux–Graham Greene and Rodney A. Grant are the primary supporting cast–do have their own scenes, but they’re delayed. It isn’t until Costner, the actor, meets them in the film does Costner, the director, let Greene and Grant start to develop. Almost the entire first hour of Dances with Wolves is Costner delaying the inciting incident. There’s a lot of ground situation to establish and Costner takes his time.
The tone Costner sets in that first hour, alternating between graphic war violence and the tranquil, infinite prairie, doesn’t carry for the rest of the film. Dances with Wolves becomes a very mature romance once the Sioux befriend Costner and he meets Mary McDonnell’s “captive.” McDonnell’s got her own arc, which is awesome, with her relearning her English and romancing a fellow white person, but she’s never reconnecting with her “lost” identity. Costner and writer Thomas Blake (adapting his novel) are very deliberate in how they present not just the Sioux, but how they present Costner and McDonnell to the Sioux and vice versa. That introductory tone, occasionally violent but still tranquil, makes the eventual character relationships all the better. Costner can spend twenty minutes having Costner and Greene bond, Costner and McDonnell appreciate each other’s company–and Costner and Grant’s relationship is maybe the film’s most emotionally devastating–and then get into the bigger questions.
The weight of Wolves comes from these characters forced into these new, impossible situations with one another, but also the impending doom of settlement. Costner narrates the film–through an in-film journal device–and lays a lot of that groundwork. But the appreciation for the natural beauty also gets emphasized in that narration. The narration also directly affects how Costner’s character’s sweet goofiness comes across in scene. It’s a beautifully constructed narrative.
The film’s technically outstanding. Semler’s photography, presumably mostly in natural light, is amazing. The Barry score is awesome. Great editing from William Hoy, Chip Masamitsu, Steve Potter and Neil Travis.
Superb acting–Greene, McDonnell, Grant, Costner, Tantoo Cardinal. Very nice “cameos” from Robert Pastorelli, Charles Rocket, Maury Chaykin, Wes Studi. McDonnell’s performance could power its own film.
Dances with Wolves is emotionally draining enough Costner could probably get away with a cute moment in the third act just to give some relief. But there isn’t any relief; Wolves has to be honest. Technicolor skies, endless Panavision prairies, the thunder of a buffalo herd–all too cinematic, all too real. Blake’s script helps a lot with the detail, ditto Jeffrey Beecroft’s production design.
Dances with Wolves is a stunning achievement from Costner and his cast and his crew.
Directed by Kevin Costner; screenplay by Michael Blake, based upon his novel; director of photography, Dean Semler; edited by William Hoy, Chip Masamitsu, Steve Potter and Neil Travis; music by John Barry; production designer, Jeffrey Beecroft; produced by Costner and Jim Wilson; released by Orion Pictures.
Starring Kevin Costner (Lieutenant Dunbar), Mary McDonnell (Stands With A Fist), Graham Greene (Kicking Bird), Rodney A. Grant (Wind In His Hair), Floyd ‘Red Crow’ Westerman (Ten Bears), Tantoo Cardinal (Black Shawl), Robert Pastorelli (Timmons), Charles Rocket (Lieutenant Elgin), Maury Chaykin (Major Fambrough) and Wes Studi (Toughest Pawnee).