In the second instalment of his very special series, Dave talks to J.S. Cardone about how a life spent within the reaches of Native American reservations has influenced his career.
A straw poll of the historical facets of Arizona will no doubt yield a weighty emphasis on the likes of the Grand Canyon, the Hoover Dam, and Monument Valley. In terms of picture postcard Americana they fit the remit easily. But with regard to real history, then we should perhaps look no further than the quarter of the region that’s devoted to Indian reservations, of which the Navajo retain the largest land area by a Native American tribe in the United States – a residence that goes back at least twelve thousand years.
It’s a presence that writer-director J.S. Cardone has always been all too aware of, as he explains:
“Well, my degree was in political science, and I had two federal arrest warrants in Louisiana for a civil rights demonstration. I have always been aware of discrimination, and on a purely political soapbox, America was founded on three things: religious fanaticism, slavery, and genocide. When I went to college and got kicked out of Louisiana State University for civil rights demonstrations, I came here and finished my degree at Northern Arizona University, and that’s where I met Carol.”
“Where I first lived, in the dorms, they didn’t have enough room to house everyone so they put us all up in motels. The two guys who lived next door to me were two Navajo kids. I actually went home with them for Thanksgiving to Gallup, New Mexico. And yeah, their culture was imprinted on me. I saw a reservation for the first time in my life, and I realised that there are parts of America that are third world. Also at the time, I was reading this wonderful author by the name of Tony Hillerman, who had written these terrific books about Navajo police officers. I got into them because they were so mystical and they had this great procedural aspect too, and it’s from there where SHADOWHUNTER (1993) sprang. I hate that title, by the way. It was originally called ‘Rope of Sand’.”
In terms of Native American portrayal in the movies, it’s a culture that has had to fight for honest representation. Films like King Vidor’s Northwest Passage (1940) and its depiction of the Native American as a subhuman creature left a mark, and despite the occasional shaft of honesty in the guise of Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) or Tom Laughlin’s Billy Jack (1971), it was two decades before some real consistency finally crept in. Jonathan Wacks’ Powwow Highway (1988) started a trend of socially responsible filmmaking towards the Native American populace, with the multi-award-winning Dances with Wolves (1990) following suit. Michael Apted’s Thunderheart (1992) was praised for its cultural respect, and Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) gave a fair depiction of the problems surrounding social integration.
Cardone’s Shadowhunter doesn’t quite reach for those heights, admittedly – but in many ways that works in its favour.
“Our ranch here in Flagstaff is only eighteen miles from the reservation,” says Cardone. “I’m still in constant contact, and when we drive to our river house, we drive across it. They have the same daily problems as Anglos. I knew I wanted to tell a story about a skinwalker, because it was so intriguing to me. But I wanted a scenario where he had committed the crime in the Anglo-social structure. Then, with Scott Glenn’s character, to take an Anglo character who had been weakened by the classic Anglo problem of a dissolving marriage. Native Americans don’t really have that because they are a matriarchal society. It fit well within the context of what I wanted to do. And I was lucky to attract Republic Pictures who, if you’ve researched them, you’ll know the history of that company. In their heyday, they were the go-to company if you wanted to make a western.”
Telling the story of a man who’s lost and his path to salvation and redemption under the watch of the Navajo community, Scott Glenn headlines as John Cain: a big city cop on the verge of emotional burn-out. His wife, Bobby (Beth Broderick), is having an affair; a perp has just gotten off due a flaw in his investigation; and he’s ready to quit the force for the sake of his own sanity. However, following a degree of arm-twisting from his superior (Frederick Flynn), Cain is persuaded to take what appears to be a simple prisoner transportation job which will see him head over to Navajo territory in Arizona to ferry Nakai Twobear (Benjamin Bratt), a man wanted for murder, back to Los Angeles. Naturally, it’s easier said than done – and when Twobear escapes, Cain finds himself alongside tracker Ray Whitesinger (Angela Alvarado), venturing into the unforgiving Sonoran Desert on horseback, pursuing someone that he’s not convinced is entirely human…
Blending Native American mysticism with repentance, rancour, and a dash of romance, Shadowhunter is a unique proposition that takes us on a thrilling journey into the heart of one man’s soul. Glenn is typically excellent: intense, solemn, and at an obvious personal crossroads. His Cain is a doubter (“C’mon, Ray, you don’t believe that fucking hocus pocus?”), but Whitesinger has the patience to lead him to the place where his heart needs to get to. Bratt, meanwhile, whose real-life mother was an Indigenous American activist, tackles the mysterious shapeshifter with relish. He’s a fleeting presence on screen, yet he fills the final reel with moments of deep, unsettling terror.
Cardone’s films have always been a bit of a family affair with his wife Carol Kottenbrook acting as his long-term producer , although the unsung hero here is his younger brother Michael, for whom Shadowhunter is undoubtedly the jewel in his cinematography career. The siblings did occasionally come to blows though, as Cardone recalls:
“I remember Scott Glenn saying to me when Michael and I were going it at it, and he said “Ahh, now I get it. It’s not about director and director of photography, it’s about big brother, little brother” [laughs].”
A gorgeous film to look at, the junior Cardone captures the flaming skies and barren wastelands of the Grand Canyon state landscape with a mix of dread and serenity. Each chapter of Cardone’s Arizona crime trilogy – A Row of Crows (1991), this, and Black Day Blue Night (1995) – is a love letter to the place where they’re set, but it’s here among the expansive vistas and imposing landscape that it’s at its most beautiful.
Filmed during late 1991, Shadowhunter went on to win the Jury Award for Best Independent Feature at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, before finding a home on VHS courtesy of Republic Pictures in the U.S. and Medusa/20:20 Vision in the U.K. Since then, aside from a no-frills DVD release in Germany, it’s avoided any kind of home entertainment edition. There have been fleeting appearances on a handful of streaming platforms (in SD, alas), but such presentations fall far short of showcasing Shadowhunter‘s ambition. A shame, because the film is such a triumph for Cardone – a filmmaker riding the wave of a creative peak.
 Shadowhunter marked the debut of Cardone and Kottenbrook’s production company, Sandstorm Films, which went on to churn out over a dozen other titles that included: Alien Hunter (2003), Vampires: The Turning (2004) and Renny Harlin’s The Covenant (2006). When asked about the attributes of his wife as a producer, Cardone says: “I gotta tell you. Not only have I worked with other producers, but I’ve been around them too. I’ve never seen any of them with the ability to pull off producing a film like she can.”