Stunning visuals interlaced through strands of Navajo cultural belief are
not enough to weave a sturdy blanket of suspense and intrigue in the PBS
American MYSTERY! television special adaptation of Tony Hillerman’s novel
“A Thief of Time.”
The film begins to fray almost immediately as Navajo tribal police
detective Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn (Wes Studi, Cherokee) and Officer Jim
Chee (Adam Beach, Saulteaux from Manitoba, Canada) follow leads that come
together forcing them to team to solve a disappearance and two murders.
Ellie Friedman-Bernal (Rosalia de Aragon), an anthropologist and expert on
the vanished Anasazi culture, disappears. Two people are found dead looting
pots near an excavation site she was working on and her colleagues say they
are clueless as to what she was doing or where she went.
Beneath the story line, the novel attempts to highlight the devastation
occurring from dealing in illegal, black market antiquities found on
American Indian cultural sites.
Unfortunately, the message is lost in the film because the script is
heavily rewritten with poorly-developed characters, loose direction and
jumpy editing – surprising considering the high-powered credentials of the
Hillerman fans know that Leaphorn’s wife Emma (Sheila Tousey,
Menominee/Stockbridge/Munsee) dies from a blood clot during surgery for a
brain tumor in the book. Losing his wife is the source of Leaphorn’s
ruminations for most of the story and the reason for his somewhat
disconnected behavior during the investigation. With Emma still alive,
although facing chemotherapy treatment, Leaphorn’s seeming distraction does
not fit in the movie.
Screenwriter Alice Arlen revives Emma and this decision would be applauded
if the character had a stronger role on screen, but her continued presence
alters the script so completely that Arlen never fully invigorates the
action or dialogue and pieces of the story are missing throughout.
Tousey is quite comfortable in her character and it would be a pleasure to
see more interaction between Emma and Leaphorn as they probe the clues in
the case. Instead we get snippets; dysfunction in the bedroom or a bit of
tea and advice for Chee.
Nearly all of the other characters are retooled for the film leaving them
flat and misplaced. Described as beautiful and mysterious on the PBS Web
site, Maxie Davis has been transformed from a serious, rather mousey
anthropologist and good friend to Friedman-Bernal into a sleazy neon-haired
leech with too many irritating quirks to be engaging.
Davis constantly leers at Leaphorn while crawling over him or shoving parts
of her body against him and her dialogue is nothing but sexual innuendo, so
completely out of place that when Chee comments about Davis’ “coming on to”
Leaphorn, his response that maybe she has something to hide is flippant and
not wholly believable.
The concerned and helpful character of Bob Luna from Hillerman’s novel is
morphed into Mildred Luna for the film. As a ranger and tour guide in Chaco
Culture National Historical Park, her first introduction is through a
condescending speech to Navajo school children about the disappearance of
the Anasazi. She screeches that they were much more intelligent than
today’s inhabitants, an obvious insult to the youth and a jab at
While he is working on the case, Leaphorn has several flashbacks to an
earlier case he worked on where Harrison Houk’s (Peter Fonda) psychotic son
killed several family members.
These flashbacks are meant to connect the present to the past, giving the
detective a clue to the killer’s identity but the editing and pacing is
muddled and incoherent, giving the audience little to no information as to
why or how the son is responsible for the killings.
This film could have been an important vehicle to both entertain and
educate, but falls short of the mark. Many questions go unanswered such as
who was the chiidii (ghost) and what was his/her role in the murders? How
does desecration of American Indian cultural artifacts affect the whole of
society or, most importantly, why our sacred sites should be protected?
Nevertheless the production of “A Thief of Time” offers a glimpse of people
and personalities not often seen on prime time television – contemporary
Native people in contemporary roles.
“A Thief of Time” is Hillerman’s ninth Leaphorn-Chee novel and the third to
be filmed. It aired on July 11. An interactive Web site offers resources on
the Navajo people and Navajoland at
A Thief of Time
Directed by Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapahoe); screenplay by Alice Arlen,
based on the novel by Tony Hillerman; director of photography, Roy Wagner;
production designer Richard Toyon; executive producers, Robert Redford and
Rebecca Eaton; producer, Craig McNeil.
With: Wes Studi as Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, Adam Beach as Officer Jim Chee,
Sheila Tousey as Emma Leaphorn; Gary Farmer as Captain Largo, Alex Rice as
Janet Pete; Graham Greene as Slick Nakai; and Rachel Tantoo Cardinal as