The movie begins with a statement that it is based on real events from the 1970’s. Thunderheart is a murder mystery, a movie about self-discovery, as well as an expose of the federal leviathan and its habitual treatment of those people it dominates. The story begins with imagery showing the killing and quickly switches to Washington DC where William Dawes (Fred Thompson, who later became a senator from Tennessee), a senior FBI official, is briefing a younger agent: Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer) on a case to which he is being assigned: the murder just shown. One reason that Levoi is being assigned to the case is he is part Sioux on his father’s side. (Val Kilmer is part Cherokee.)
In this assignment Ray will work with legendary FBI agent Frank Coutelle (Sam Shepard) in the South Dakota Badlands not too far from Rapid City. When Ray gets to the area he meets Frank who is convinced that a group of “radical” American Indians called ARM are behind not only the latest killing, but many others in what he calls a war between factions of the Sioux: the traditionalists with ARM on one side and those who side with the tribal government, which sides with the US federal government, on the other.
When Ray and Frank go to what they believe is the murder site to investigate, they encounter another person who after being given what seems a fairly standard FBI greeting, says that he is there to take the victim’s body to a funeral ceremony (my words). He isn’t immediately intimidated, and Ray gives him some rough-handling before he finds his new acquaintance is the tribal sheriff, Walter Crow Horse (Graham Greene, who is truly wonderful in this role).
When Ray and Frank tour the community in which the events take place they see the conditions that characterize many American Indian reservations in the United States: poverty, unemployment, federal management, cronyism, etc. Jimmy Looks Twice (John Trudell) is Frank’s primary suspect and a member of ARM. When the FBI apprehends him they intrude upon a traditionalist gathering and Ray meets Grandpa Sam Reaches (Chief Ted Thin Elk), who both helps him on his journey of self-discovery as well as in solving the murder.
In addition to Jimmy, Walter and Grandpa; in his investigation Ray also meets Maggie Eagle Bear (Sheila Tousey) when he follows up on a lead about where the shooting might have taken place. Maggie is another ARM activist, but she is pledged to non-violence. She also helps him along in what has become his sole personal quest to actually solve the murder and other related mysteries.
I think Thunderheart is a much underrated film. It may be the best movie in which Val Kilmer has taken part, and I like several of his films. Like The Education of Little Tree it eloquently shows some of the terrible treatment which American Indians have received at the hands of the federal government, but like The Last Of The Mohicans it has a “happy ending.” Even though there is a fair amount of tragedy in this film there is also true heroism and a deep respect for freedom. Although I’m not aware of Thunderheart being listed as a movie which makes a great case for all people’s right to bear arms, I think it qualifies for that too, as well as showing the dubious aspect of federal "benefits." This is a film to which I can give a wholehearted endorsement.