Thursday, March 14, 2013
Jeremiah Johnson. A
Jeremiah Johnson may very well be the best work of both Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford's careers. Pollack directed big Hollywood movies that always looked good but rarely offered any sort of transcendent narrative experience. Here's easily his best looking movie (just ahead of Out of Africa, I'd say) that happens to have a great story inspired by the real life John "liver-Eating" Johnson. As for Redford, he pulls off an amazing feat of convincingly portraying a mountain man while never losing any of his Hollywood charisma, a testament ultimately due to his skills as an actor. What I loved about this movie was that it's fully furnished with everything needed to become something lame, sort of like Dances With Wolves, and yet it keeps refusing to stop being a cool, rugged, and different kind of thing. For starters, it's got a big budget, a big Hollywood director, and a superstar in the lead. Knowing that Pollack went on to make Out of Africa, it's amazing the amount of restraint he shows here. Never once does he contrive a sequence for the pleasure of the audience. Redford too is wonderfully low key, saying little and for most of the movie sporting an impressive beard when the studio could have called for a shaven face so one wouldn't forget about his handsome looks. But what really impressed me here was how the story plays out against our expectations. At one point Johnson takes a young boy whose family has been murdered as a travel companion. It would be an easy way for Johnson to become a father figure, a mentor to the boy to show that even though he's left humanity behind he still has plenty of it left inside him. And yet the boy literally never says a word. He certainly helps Johnson out but the movie seems completely disinterested in showing a traditional father-son relationship play out. The same can be said for when Johnson finds himself getting an Indian wife as a prize from a friendly tribe. Yes, the movie can't resist putting in a love story here, but it plays out in a natural way without any of decor of a traditional Hollywood romance. Jeremiah Johnson is by and large a pretty slow moving film, but it does have some expert action scenes and some wonderful suspense, including one of the best uses of soft-focus that I've seen. It's a shocking studio picture that seems at times a lot like something Sam Peckinpah might have made. Another surprise is that, while it tackles the issue of native americans, it takes a dual approach that would hardly have been expected in 1972.