Kelly Reichardt’s austere vision of the Pacific Northwest, crafted over half a dozen films, gets a little bit warmer with First Cow. Having already filmed a trip-to-nowhere on the Oregon Trail with the excellent Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt starts her latest with the journey already over, focusing on what comes next once the wagon’s been repaired and the river’s been forded. With her second period-set film, Reichardt has wrapped her arms around the American frontier, a place where, in the words of one of the leads, history hasn’t arrived yet. All the optimism and the naivete contained in that phrase, and the willful blindness to the people that have been there long before waves of traders and migrants swooped in, is the country in a nutshell, a place that sends out useful idiots to do the dirty work of settlement and clearance before capitalizing on their brutal labor and brushing them aside as surely as they just did the brushing. As clearly as Reichardt sees this, she also understands the intoxicating sense of possibility that drives the entire project of America, and despite opening her film on an unmarked grave discovered in the present, she manages to convince the viewer that she’s telling a different story than the one she initially suggests. There’s nothing more American than lulling a mark into a warm sense of security.
Acclaimed director Jacques Audiard turns his eyes to the Old West in his first English-language film, The Sisters Brothers. Audiard’s film becomes immediately noteworthy by the very long list of production companies that precede the opening frames, a testament to how difficult it’s getting to make a mid-budget film, even one that includes a main cast of four actors in their creative primes. Getting those dozens of companies on the project ultimately did the Sisters Brothers few favors, as it was ignored by audiences and forgotten by critics. Audiard has been at the helm of great films in his native France, but something’s missing in this particular corner of the frontier.
Forsaken is a prime example of great acting elevating subpar writing, though in this particular case, the acting is surely helped by circumstance. Donald and Kiefer Sutherland star as a father and son in Jon Cassar’s western, and while nothing should be taken away from their work here, it must be easier to fully inhabit roles that superficially mirror real ones. When footage of Kiefer drunkenly tackling that Christmas tree emerged, did he imagine Donald scolding him for his foolishness, not unlike what happens in Forsaken? If the familial relationship helps them in their performances, it also cannot help but impact the viewer, never forgetting that there is something real happening onscreen when they argue with each other over their life choices. Without that potent dynamic, Forsaken becomes a substandard frontier tale, complete with rapacious industrialists, cowed townsfolk, and a man with a bloody reputation trying and failing to put that life behind him.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.