Friday, May 13, 2011

Chaos & Destruction

Our title comes from Stephen Meek, hired guide from the film Meek's Cutoff,  trying to describe to the three wives of the party (who knit throughout his speech) the fundamental difference between women and men. None of the ladies are much impressed. By the end of the movie, Meek has surrendered to Emily Tetherow's (Michelle Williams) assessment of the situation: they are lost in the wilderness and may as well follow a captured native to either the West Coast (and water) or to an ambush/slaughter by an as yet unseen Indian tribe. 

SPOILERS! The movie ends soon after, leaving the viewer uncertain of the outcome of the journey. Do these settlers ever make it to Oregon? We never see, though history proves they (the whites) eventually did. Meek (a bearded longhair Bruce Greenwood) is a blowhard, filled with brave stories of conquest, but Michelle Williams (who I loved in Blue Valentine) is more trusting of the foreign mysticism of their newly captured Indian, as is her husband, a very understated Will Patton who is outstanding here in his wise stoicism (named Soloman to good effect).

Meek's Cutoff is slow, monotonous, and ultimately hypnotic, punctuated with elliptical scenes of beautiful landscape and nighttime cloud formation photography. The potential drama of the hardships of a covered wagon trip across the deserted plains is consistently stripped to its essentials (i.e.  when an axle breaks, the men matter-of-factly whittle a new one, then the journey continues; also, when meal times come, the women stoke the fires and grind grain with simple tools, then knead the dough, etc.). 

People who complain that the Lord Of The Rings trilogy is just hours of dudes walking will positively HATE this movie. I was enraptured. It is subtlety scored with droning strings and clanking pots and pans, many sequences with only the sound of squeaky wagon wheels. A minimalist Pioneer Days. 

There is a metaphor throughout about following leaders whom you have lost faith in, then finding a new one who you know even less, but seem to be trustworthy, ultimately leaving your fate to the unknown (i.e., God). 

The devout religious beliefs of our group are a crucial part of them staying together. Early on there is a reading from the Book of Genesis about Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden and forced to wander for years in the wilderness. This provides the basic structure of the film, as we begin at a river, watching the party ritually gather water in preparation for their long journey. Much later, after losing faith in her guide, a defiant Mrs. Tetherow is tempted by the foreign words of the native ("Other"). She confronts the dual nature of man, civilized and savage, and dares to make her own choice. 

The biggest action sequence is the group lowering their covered wagons down a hill by ropes. One crashes, leaving the remains of wheels and wood that future travelers will find years (…decades, centuries…) later, wondering what befell of their original passengers. This is that film; the story we imagine when we find those artifacts of American Westward Expansion, or the obscure native petroglyphs carved into rock formations.

Hesher (as played by JGL, who is going places) is Chaos & Destruction incarnate. His sage madness infiltrates a sad family and brings them enlightenment, not unlike a "Magical Negro": maybe a Magick Metalhead?

I first heard of this movie back in 2010 when it played at Sundance, where it received middling reviews. I hoped it would be a documentary on contemporary headbangers ("Hessians") but no; Hesher is an embodiment of metal ideals of sex, death, and destruction. His tattoos are simplistic renditions of stick-figure suicide, a skull, and a middle finger to the world: in essence, a symbol of nihilistic rebellion (with an uplifting message of emotional liberation for all of us "normals").

This movie has some aspects of "Indie Hell" family dramedy conventions but it won me over. The kid playing the lead T.J (Devin Brochu) was a winner (putting me in mind of the wonderful leads of Let Me In / Let the Right One In) as a damaged, isolated pre-teen with heavy family issues, finding a mentor in the most alien person around. Rabbit Hole also came to mind as the loss of a loved one is central to the plot. The recent passing of my grandmother (Dorothy Kimble) also played a part in me relating to this narrative. Animal Kingdom creator David Michôd had a hand in writing the screenplay and I felt his influence here. Dark sexual humor with sudden, cathartic bursts of violence (and Metallica music). 

This is the third Natalie Portman performance I've seen in 2011. She was good, but not as homely as her character seemed meant to be. Piper Laurie (Carrie, Twin Peaks) was frail and adorable as the perhaps too-kind grandmother. As the drugged-up grieving father, Rainn Wilson was the weak point for me, as I never found his character fully relatable, but maybe that was the point. The unpredictable Hesher becomes T.J.'s de facto father figure, urging him on to fight back, if not always in the most constructive ways. Some scenes rang hollow to me but I was mostly on board. 

Worthwhile for the mood and some very affecting scenes. As a couple behind me at the theater said after the credits (worth staying for the profane drawings, a la Superbad) "We want more Hesher!" i.e. JGL Will Return in "From Hessia WIth Hate." Good times…

Oscar winner

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