With The Last Manhunt, the epic story of Willie Boy the Desert Runner reclaims the narrative of a Native hero long portrayed by white men as a bloodthirsty child kidnapper.
Helmed by director Christian Camargo with a story by Jason Momoa and Thomas Pa’a Sibbett, the 1909-set western explores an intricate, vibrant world on the cusp of annihilation thanks to the violent nationalistic genocide perpetrated in the name of “Manifest Destiny.” Somewhere in hell, John Wayne is fuming like 45 after the midterms.
History is agreed on the fundamental events that sparked the titular manhunt (although the script alters some of the names). In 1909, Willie Boy (Martin Sensmeier) and Carlotta (Mainei Kinimaka), both members of the same tribe, are in love. Her father Mike (Zahn McClarnon) forbids their union because they are cousins. There’s a brutal confrontation and horrific accident. Willie Boy and Carlotta are forced to flee into the Mojave.
They travel some 600 miles in 27 days across unbroken desert, eluding a posse of heavily armed white lawmen and Native scouts. What they can’t fight is a reporter (Mojean Aria) determined to make his name by painting Willie Boy as a homicidal predator who has abducted a child. Willie Boy and Carlotta have the skills to survive in the desert, but they’re no match for the historical forces they’re caught up in.
In Camargo’s austere, visually stunning release, the story is at once an epic romance and gripping thriller. It’s also a reverent portrayal of Native traditions in the Chemehuevi Valley at the turn of the century. The story of Carlotta and Willie Boy is at times Romeo and Juliet-esque, but it also highlights in merciless terms how the west was not won but brutally stolen. Early among many powerful scenes, we see McClarnon’s Mike—chief of a tribe that counts 26 members left—leading a ceremony of “Salt Songs,” prayers for the dead. In the circle of chants and drumming, The Last Manhunt spins an elegy for how the west was killed, or at least the west as it existed for the ancestors of Willie Boy and Carlotta. McClarnon is simultaneously soaked in grief and defiance. Salt Songs may be for the dead, but the reverence for tradition and historical fact in The Last Manhunt shows that—against all odds—culture endures. R, 103 min.