I’m a terrible cinemagoer. No, I’m not one of those inconsiderate creeps who takes calls during the movie, or eats the largest bag of popcorn in the slowest manner possible while obliviously stirring the corn, and I don’t talk at the screen, and I don’t fart except for that one time, and I only ever really make exclamations of joy when I’m utterly transported out of myself by what’s onscreen, though if the movie’s really bad and I’m miles away from anyone else I just can’t help myself from saying “For fuck’s sake!” such as whenever that hack Paul W.S. Anderson plagiarises another movie or exerts zero effort once again. All of this means that I think that gives me the right to hate on other filmgoers, and sadly London Film Festival attendees — while almost completely silent during the movies (except for the lady who cackled and noisily announced her joyous emotions to her friends through the performance of It’s Kind of a Funny Story) — have yet to figure out fundamentals as start-times and seat allocations. Seriously, almost every screening was marred by people arriving 15 minutes late and disrupting whole rows of people who understand the concepts of time and space.
So it was that I got to a screening of John Sayles’ Amigo just as an LFF curator introduced Time Out critic Geoff Andrews, who she said would be hosting a Q&A after the movie, and then struggled to find my seat as the lights went down because some group of random idiots had decided they didn’t like where they were supposed to sit and thus colonised my seat instead. Cue twenty minutes of thinking the seat I ended up in would be allocated to one of the many, many, many late arrivals. The movie unfolded as I scoured the late arrivals, heralded by the thumping door and then “muted” conversations as they walked up and down the screen’s central aisle. “Is it C? Or D? D15? I can’t see that. Get your phone out. Where are the ushers?” Information onscreen eluded me as my normal settling-in routine failed to kick in. Was this guy going to disrupt me? Was this woman? Holy shit, there’s a 10 foot tall person who walked in TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES INTO THE MOVIE! He’s in the aisle! He keeps hovering around by my row! Sit down, dude! Sit down!!!
So yeah, I almost lost my shit at John Sayles for ruining my experience of his own movie. The gargantuan (in size and legend) filmmaker had arrived late (and, from what it seemed to me, kind of unexpectedly, as he had not been namechecked by the curator at the beginning), and was trying to figure out where he could sit. And I nearly went ballistic on my hero and told him to plant his goddamn ass so I could concentrate on getting to grips with the large cast and unfamiliar political/historical situation. That would have been a unique experience. Thank God I stopped myself from completing this dick move: a useful lesson in enhancing my calm in public.
Unfortunately my experience was still tainted by the late arrivals. Amigo is set during a conflict that Sayles admitted in his subsequent fascinating Q&A was a part of American history that is relatively unknown, and the opening of the film contains a sizable but deftly handled download of infomation. Research for a novel – A Moment in the Sun, set during the Phillippine-American War of 1899-1902 – led to him developing the additional story of the American occupation of a single baryo: San Isidro, which in the movie stands in for all the barrios that were colonised by US soldiers and fought over by Filipino revolutionaries. The village has already been touched by the war when the movie opens: Rafael Dacanay, the head of the baryo, has imprisoned a couple of soldiers and a Spanish Friar (Padre Hidalgo, played with slimy arrogance by Yul Vàzquez) on the orders of his revolutionary brother. Dacanay is more interested in just keeping the village and the harvest running: when his son expresses an interest in joining the revolutionaries that are camped out in the forest surrounding the village, Dacanay forbids him, knowing that nothing good can come of it.
However, Dacanay and San Isidro are unable to avoid fate: it’s not long before American forces enter the village, freeing the soldiers and Padre Hidalgo. Unable to understand the Filipinos, they rely on the Padre to translate: bad news for Dacanay, who has made a powerful and sneaky enemy. Hidalgo poisons the occupying American force against Dacanay (who, through a complication of translation, is known to the Americans as Amigo), who spends much of the movie being treated like dirt by everyone. His role as the leader of the village is undermined by the forces piled on top of him, torn between his responsibility to his family and fellow villagers, the revolutionaries in the forest who want to exploit his closeness to the Americans, and the US soldiers (led by the sympathetic but oblivious Lt. Compton: another terrific performance from Shades of Caruso favourite Garret Dillahunt).
Dacanay is possibly the unluckiest character of the year. He gets beaten up, insulted, tortured, manipulated, and betrayed. Joel Torre does a great job with the character, perfectly depicting his internal conflict and anguish as the quiet life of the village is disrupted by forces beyond his control. Also notable are Vàzquez, excelling as the loathsome Friar, and Dillahunt, who brings great humanity to Compton. The large cast also features DJ Qualls (cast well against type), Chris Cooper as the unfeeling Col. Hardacre, and Dane DeHaan (currently making waves as adopted teenager Jesse in yet another superlative season of In Treatment) as the lovestruck Gill, whose affection for a villager is one of the first signs that the occupation (or “hamletting”, as it was called in Vietnam, where the same tactics were used) could end well.
That’s the key to Amigo, and the thing that makes it such a warm and entertaining movie – a tonal miracle considering the subject matter. Language barriers, selfishness, vindictiveness and distrust constantly threaten the uneasy truce between the villagers and the soldiers, but common humanity and decency still shines through from time to time. If it wasn’t for Padre Hidalgo, Col. Hardacre and the revolutionaries, the baryo would settle into a peaceful routine. It would remain an occupation, but the simple truth is once these people spend enough time together, there is a chance that a respectful detente will form between villagers and soldiers – who are often just farm boys who understand the harvest and the actions necessary to keep the village running.
Soppy liberal wishful-thinking? Perhaps, and it’s certainly the kind of worthy message movie that usually annoys, but Sayles is a better filmmaker than, say, Paul Haggis, what with his aversion to subtext or subtlety. The message of Amigo – that humans flourish when politics or religion or grudges don’t get in the way – is conveyed through well-sketched characters, suspenseful plotting, and a real feeling for the things that drive us. It works as much as a movie as it does a treatise on the foolishness of men at war, and Sayles is persuasive enough – and brave enough in showing the inevitable darkening of that dream – for his message to come across with the same compassion he always shows, though never at the cost of that “page-turning” skill he has demonstrated numerous times in the past.
One problem with the movie (and it’s no fault of Sayles’) is that it concerns a part of history that is rarely spoken of, meaning this viewer had trouble placing it in any kind of context. It’s the same discombobulation felt when watching something like Malick’s Thin Red Line or The Pacific: it’s hardly ever spoken of and so you can’t help but wonder how much of what you’re seeing is artistic licence and how much is researched and depicted with as much accuracy as possible. Hopefully any DVD or Blu-Ray of Amigo comes with some historical documentaries, as Sayles’ Q&A revealed that pretty much everything you saw on screen was the product of an incredible amount of research, answering every question I had. For instance, San Isidro stood in for hundreds of baryos that saw the head of the village caught between his loyalty to his revolutionary countrymen and his obligation to do what the occupiers asked in order to keep his charges safe. Also, some distracting topical phrases employed by Hardacre about “hearts and minds” grated – the parallels between this war and the situation in Iraq are clear enough without extra hints — but according to Sayles this was genuinely part of the reasoning behind the hamletting technique seen here, decades before the practice was seen in Vietnam. He didn’t mention whether the water torture inflicted upon Dacanay was also used at the time, but I suspect it was.
Amigo left me pretty stoked. It’s a fine movie, possibly Sayles’ best since Limbo, and not at all heavy-going. It runs like a dream, uses its large cast well, and does a good job of condensing a great deal of material into an entertaining story. If this means Sayles has ground the edges down a bit too much, it’s a price worth paying for two hours of fascinating storytelling, and certainly when he is exploring a historical incident that is not well known. Even better, upon leaving the screening, I saw the great man hanging around outside, and felt compelled to monster the poor guy. If that’s at all possible: he’s approximately a million feet tall. When I shook his hand I felt like an 6-year old meeting a kindly uncle. I thanked him for Amigo, and informed him that his damnable classic Limbo had haunted me ever since I saw it years ago.
Limbo spoilers! Beware!
He seemed amused by this, but I guess he regularly gets hassled about it. The end of Amigo is likely to generate the same reaction: he was asked during the Q&A if he had ever considered a different ending, and he revealed his endings come first & he works backward from there (which makes me feel better as I do the same thing). When I mentioned the end of Limbo he said that he had asked the cast what they thought had happened after the screen fades out, and found that the male actors thought the characters lived, and the female ones thought they died. Or the other way around: I can’t remember as while he was telling the anecdote my brain was screaming “John Sayles is talking to me!!!” Anyway, he pointed out that there was a gender split with his main actors, and that he felt the end was a Rorschach test. To this day I’ve never been able to settle on my own opinion: I enjoy the Schrodinger-esque quality of it.
Language barriers and distrust between races are also evident in Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist Western Meek’s Cutoff, which sees a group of settlers crossing inhospitable landscapes in a desperate search for water after getting lost. A grizzled old frontiersman, Meek (an unrecognisable Bruce Greenwood), leads the group astray in a foolish bid to explore uncharted land, a decision that jeopardises them all. The majority of the movie depicts their quiet, resigned struggle to get over the next hill, then the next, then the next, the landscape sprawling out before them with almost no variation. Tensions that have sprung up among the settlers threaten to tear the group apart, and every choice made is tainted by fear and resentment, with their initial suspicion of Meek eventually transferred to the native American who crosses their path. The conflict then becomes one between compassion and pragmatism: will the group be doomed by the native American or the shady explorer in their midst, and should they react with violence to save themselves?
As with Essential Killing there isn’t really much to the plot, but unlike Skolimovsky’s movie – which is an empty exercise in provocation – Meek’s Cutoff manages to be tense and involving, with Reichardt displaying a mastery of mood that her other movies only hinted at. She conveys the slowly building fear of the settlers brilliantly: I could feel my neck crane in a futile attempt to see over the next ridge, to see if there was water there. A scene involving the lowering of their wagons down an incline is one of the most suspenseful scenes of the year: something you don’t expect to see in such a meditative movie. The stakes increase in severity almost without you realising it: Reichardt’s ability to twist the screws is notably subtle and effective.
Mostly that’s because she takes the time to show just how precarious their situation is. Their wagons are the only things they have, and if they lose them, or their livestock, they’re doomed: a fact that is taught to us through skillful inference. A lot of the work is done through the amazing sound design by Leslie Shatz: he soundtracks the movie with little more than the creak and squeak of the wagon wheels. That persistent sound becomes the sound of hope: if they stop moving they’ll die. Such care over every detail of the journey makes Meek’s Cutoff a riveting experience, one that threads thematic possibilities through its sparse narrative while always coming back to its core point: nature is an enemy that progress cannot ever conquer. An old idea, but when depicted with this clarity and persistence, it’s hard to carp. You find yourself hypnotised by the sight of these people silently moving ever onwards, finding yourself empathically connected to them, the sound of the wheels grating and pushing you into a state of frustrated panic.
There are two choices made by Reichardt that seem odd. One is Meek himself, played as the grumpiest old prospector imaginable by Greenwood. It’s a very entertaining and ego-free performance, but sadly when he showed up I turned to Daisyhellcakes and mentioned Gus Chiggins, which pretty much ruined our enjoyment of his turn. Even without that, the broadness of his work here is at odds with the naturalistic style employed by everyone else. Perhaps he is merely meant to be the sort of charismatic frontiersman who can convince a group of settlers to go against their better judgement and leave the well-worn path. (In case you were wondering, there were no other problems with the performances, with all acquiting themselves very well and the seemingly unstoppable Michelle Williams excelling once again.)
The other choice that stirred me out of my happy revery was the ending: not because it’s bad, but because it so closely resembles the end of another man vs. nature film made in recent years. I won’t spoil, but after seeing the film it might be worth looking at this page, which reveals what actually happened to the real settlers who travelled with Stephen Meek and veered off the Oregon Trail in 1845. It’s a valid choice by Reichardt, but it almost undermines the momentum of the rest of the film. Not a killing blow by any stretch: it’s still one of the best movies of the year, and a terrific companion-piece to Debra Granik’s atmospheric Winter’s Bone. Nevertheless, it didn’t quite close the deal. (For a better review of Meek’s Cutoff, I recommend this from Slash Film).