- Vancouver, British Columbia - It was a Tuesday and I was itching to see a movie in the theatres. I was also feeling a bit adventurous and wanted to see something smaller. I often feel like I neglect the independent features durin their theatrical run which is unfortunate because a lot of people do. I have to make an effort to seek out the films that most others ignore. Now, I don't dislike blockbusters of course, in fact I'm quite eager to see X-Men: First Class right now, but I thought it might be cool to watch a western movie, which don't come out much these days. And why not? It was getting very positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes at 85% when I saw it last. Seemed like a safe bet.
My question is... did I miss something? I didn't enjoy this movie at all. Perhaps this is the kind of movie that critics say they like so that they can gain credibility or feel above the casual movie goer? I guess I could try and make it sound better than it is. Perhaps the long drawn out scenes were supposed to directly reflect the long drawn out days of the travelers. Perhaps the redundancies were supposed to parallel the redundancies of each monotonous day that they had to endure. Or perhaps they just made a long and boring movie. I think they could all be true, but that doesn't forgive the latter.
Bruce Greenwood plays Stephen Meek, who is a seasoned cowboy leading a group of wagons on a trail. He talks of great adventures he's been on, most of which sound like movies that I should have been watching in this one's place. However, it becomes more and more apparent that the group is lost, despite Meek's reassurances that he knows exactly where they're going. As they start to run low on water they find a stoic Native American who they capture and persuade (force) to lead them to water.
I have mixed feelings about Bruce Greenwood's performance. While I feel that he disappeared into the character (and beard), occasionally his acting was exaggerated and didn't feel believable. Other times, he was just fine. This wasn't a problem with the other actors. They were consistent with their downplayed performances. Michelle Williams, who I felt had the strongest presence as the film mostly followed her character, did very well in her role and spoke through her eyes in the many scenes without dialogue. This is very necessary in a movie such as this. Paul Dano is also an actor I admire and I thought his acting was just fine, though I feel he was underused. There was not enough opportunity for him to shine.
The actors that this film pulled in are impressive, but I can't say I'm surprised. It feels like the kind of film you would sign onto to gain some attention from critics. It's the kind of movie that an actor could read the screenplay and see a definite challenge in. And at the script stage, one might not fully envision how the film would turn out at the end, nor is that the actor's job.
I don't know if it is Jonathan Raymond's script or Kelly Reichardt's direction that made this such a tedious watch. Perhaps it is a combination of both. What I can say for sure is that it doesn't really play like a movie. At times it seemed like nothing more than a series of landscape portraits with wagons and people put in for good measure. Indeed they are beautiful portraits of harsh terrain, but there are just too many shots of this nature. At other times it felt more like an educational flick as we watch the men and women perform chores and other day to day tasks. I understand it can be good to create the world your film takes place in, but minute long shots could have been cut in half. We don't need to watch everything in real time.
After the incredibly dull beginning, I finally started to feel like the film was going somewhere when they captured the Native man. His presence lent a chaotic element that wasn't present before. We never really get into his head as he and the white characters are alien to one another. That lack of understanding is where the tension comes from, which started to very much draw me in near the end. I began to genuinely care about the travelers and wanted so dearly for them to find a source of water.
However, my admiration for the film came to a crashing halt. The film's ending was a slap to the audiences face. I was angered that... well, I suppose I shouldn't say. A spoiler would be considered bad form, even if I clearly am not recommending that you see the movie. Let's just say it ends too soon. The journey was long and slow. Any audience member who stuck around deserved better than that. I suppose some might call it bold. I call it insulting.
Maybe I'm wrong? There are some movie critics who have been doing this a whole lot longer than I have that seem to get a lot from this movie. I suppose there are things to admire about the film and it certainly is working against many (all?) Hollywood conventions. The problem is, I was so bored that none of the merits seemed to matter. I saw this with my fiancee, and she was also bored. And the thing is... we're art people! We're the ones who are supposed to get stuff like this, right? It's a reminder to me, as a film maker, that the most important thing you have in your film is your story. This story is paper thin and made for the single most tedious theatre going experience I've had in years. It makes it just a bit harder to take a leap into more independent cinema, because after the film the only moral to the story I saw was that we should have watched X-Men: First Class.
Rating: 1/5 Sour Grapes