Riley Keough and Gina Gammell’s feature directorial debut, War Pony, follows two young Oglala Lakota men on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Written by Keough, Gammell, and members of the Lakota people Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, the film is full of tragedy, community, and gorgeous symbolism told through the presence of different animals.
It’s main characters are a high schooler named Matho, played by LaDainian Crazy Thunder, and a young father named Bill, played by Jojo Bapteise Whiting. Their stories become interwoven in unexpected ways, and bound by their shared search for belonging, each of the young men grapples with a world built against them as they navigate their unique paths to manhood. Throughout their journeys, they encounter many animals along the way that mirror their inner emotional worlds.
We asked the War Pony team to walk us through what the appearance of different animals mean throughout the film, including dogs, buffaloes, spiders, eagles, turkeys, cats, and more.
Bill Reddy and Riley Keough Explain the Animal Symbolism in War Pony
Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob were working as extras on the South Dakota set of Andrea Arnold’s 2016 drama American Honey, in which Keough appeared alongside Shia LaBeouf and Sasha Lane.
Reddy and Bob became close friends with Keough while hanging out on set, and Keough later brought her friend and producing partner Gammell back to the area to meet them. Together, they began writing scenes based on Reddy and Bob’s real lives on the Pine Ridge Reservation, and over the years, the narrative for War Pony emerged.
“I swear the Lakota people, we’re animal people, you know? We learn from animals, they learn from us. We share our lives with them, they share their lives with us. They’re spiritual to us. They’re messengers for us. I don’t know, they just teach us a lot,” Reddy tells MovieMaker.
“We have a real good connection with animals, and we’re never apart from them. I mean, everything — the eagles, the birds, the dogs, the cats, the buffaloes, the horses, all that. So I believe that’s how the connection that we have with the animals, I guess that’s how that goes. That’s who we are — animal people, I believe.”
Keough says the animal symbolism came about organically through asking their young Lakota actors to connect their characters’ emotions with the animals that represent them.
“The way we chose the specific moments for the animals was by asking the boys… what would represent this in this moment for you? If you were doing something that maybe you didn’t feel like was the right thing to do, and then something happened to sort of change your path or change your mind, what would represent that? I think the Buffalo was one of those, and then also Iktómi, the spider,” she explains. (Iktómi is the Lakota word for spider).
“So that would just be from asking them — in this moment, if you were driving and something happened that that made you kind of go internal and feel like, oh, I shouldn’t continue, what would that be? And then they’d say, ‘Oh, a buffalo.’ So we’d put that in.”
Keough also shared the true story behind the powerful moment in the film when Matho sees an eagle from the road as he’s in the car during his father’s funeral procession.
“The moment and where Matho sees the eagle, that was a real moment that happened with Bill. We were driving in the Black Hills, and there was an eagle, and he rolled the window down and tore up a cigarette and and threw tobacco out the window,” Keough says. “We just put that into that moment for Matho because it felt like the right moment. That just was something that I watched Bill do, and then put into this script. They’re all kind of random but meaningful.”
Reddy says that every moment in the movie is based on a real experience lived by him or someone he knows.
“I didn’t have to be anybody that I wasn’t. I just kept that shit real. Everything within the story, the whole part that’s me, is real. I lived that shit. Nothing about it was fake,” Reddy says.
“Everything that’s happened that you see in the movie, I either lived that life, I experienced it, or I know somebody that did experience it. I understand people to where, in a sense, I learned from what happened to them, and I try to share their knowledge so that won’t happen again.”
War Pony recently played at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival in October. It made it’s world premiere at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Caméra d’Or. It was released in the U.S. on July 28, 2023 by Momentum Pictures. It’s now available to stream or rent on Prime Video, YouTube, and Apple TV.
Main Image: Jojo Bapteise Whiting as Bill in War Pony