war pony review

War Pony review | Riley Keough and Gina Gammell’s debut is dynamic, but uneven

Riley Keough and Gina Gammell’s directorial debut follows the lives of two Lakota boys. Read our full review of War Pony. 

Actress Riley Keough has teamed up with her best friend Gina Gammell to tell a story that is both universal and specific. Their debut film, War Pony, follows the lives of two Lakota boys living on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. 

Bill (Jojo Bapteise Whiting) is a young man with two kids with two different women. He gets by by hustling; he asks anyone he passes by if they’d like to buy a Playstation 4 which he has likely stolen. His latest hustle involves him stealing a dog which he wants to breed and sell the puppies for profit. Bill eventually gains employment with Tim (Sprague Hollander) at his turkey farm, driving Tim’s Lakota mistresses to and from their trysts at cheap motels as another side hustle. 

Matho on the other hand is younger, but no less weary of the world. He and his friends often steal meth from Matho’s father and cut it with baking soda and sell it, using the profits for sweets and sodas at the shop. Matho’s father swiftly kicks the 12-year-old out of his house after finding out what he has been up to, sending the little man spiralling as he struggles to get by.

war pony bill

Credit: Picturehouse Entertainment

Bill and Matho’s paths unexpectedly cross eventually, but their stories also bear some similarities. They’re almost like two sides of the same coin; different, but the same. War Pony doesn’t have much plot. The film acts more as a snapshot into Bill and Matho’s lives; it realistically chronicles their daily tribulations and provides an authentic look at what life on a reservation looks like. You might be surprised to find out it’s not what you’d expect. 

There’s a beautiful sense of duality to War Pony. Early on, we observe Bill driving his old wreck of a car, blasting hip hop while others ride horses next to him. There’s a constant push-and-pull when it comes to their culture’s traditions and a more capitalist lifestyle. Towards the end of the film, Bill is helping out at Tim’s Halloween party, only to come face to face with a white man in a headdress and face paint, a ghastly reminder that the scales are never balanced. 

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There is a lot of Chloé Zhao to be found in War Pony. Zhao, too, has often looked at the everyday lives of the Lakota people in her films Songs My Brothers Taught Me, which was also set on Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and The Rider. Keough and Gammell, like Zhao, come to their stories as outsiders looking in. It often leads to great insight, but most importantly, Keough and Gammell tell Bill and Matho’s stories with kindness and free of any judgement. 

The double narrative of Bill and Matho proves challenging. The two stories never quite gel together until they inevitably intercept. Bill grows to be a likeable lead; he’s goofy and sincere, always wearing his heart on his sleeve. There’s a sweetness to him, even as, or perhaps especially when, he’s stealing someone’s poodle. 

Matho on the other hand is harder to crack. While War Pony is clearly a story about the loss of innocence, Matho’s story feels almost too rocky to be only half of the narrative. Unlike Bill, Matho often hides his feelings and Ladainian Crazy Thunder’s performance is brilliantly internalised, but Matho is a difficult character to latch onto, especially next to someone as endearing as Bill. 

War Pony has many individual moments of brilliance and while it never comes close to the sheer poetry of Zhao’s work, it shows potential. Keough and Gammell, along with their cinematographer David Gallego, shoot the reservation dynamically and never wallow in the hardships. War Pony is a promising start for Keough and Gammell, even if its dual narrative fails to make a coherent whole. 

WAR PONY opens in UK & Irish cinemas on 9th June 2023. For more information head to http://warpony.film/

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