Saturday, March 1, 2014

Jeremiah Johnson

Sydney Pollack's epic mountain man tale Jeremiah Johnson wouldn't work as well without the tremendous lead performance from Robert Redford and the stunning landscapes of Redford's adopted home state of Utah. We don't know anything about Jeremiah's backstory other than the opening narration telling us he wanted to be a mountain man, trapping and hunting bear, beaver, elk, and whatever else he can sell for profit while not having to live in the hustle and bustle of the city. But Redford tells us a lot in his performance, shows us in very little dialog that Jeremiah simply wasn't a modern man. He needed to be with nature, to be alone, to work and live off the land and all it provides. It's a stunning performance, easily the pinnacle of Redford's distinguished career.

Jeremiah meets many folks along the way of his journey, a bear trapper who teaches him a lot about how to survive in the bitter colds of the mountains, a talkative scoundrel who gets him in good with a few Indians (and not so good with others), an adopted mute son, and eventually an Indian wife. One moment that struck me was when a US Cavalry unit is sent on a rescue mission and comes to ask Jeremiah if he'll help lead them through the mountains. He begins laughing and when the Lieutenant says he doesn't get the joke, Jeremiah simply says it's been so long since he's heard that much of the English language it's funny to him and he's not used to it. Being with a wife and son who don't speak English, and spending so much time alone, the simple concept of having a language you understand sound funny because it's been so long since you've heard it really connected to me the isolation of this character and performance.

What I'd remembered most from my viewing of the movie as a kid was the seemingly endless snow that Jeremiah has to navigate. In this viewing, while the snow is endless, Pollack shows us many sides of Utah's land, the snowy mountains, the desert-y basins, the green forests. It's a wonderful movie to look at and really gives a sense visually of time passing, and land being traversed. Pollack has said that since there wasn't a through line of narrative, that the movie had to depend on the mood and rhythms of the storytelling, and I think he was greatly helped by the land itself in that regard.

There's action, love, humor, and a wonderful lead performance. It's an epic that is just shy of 2 hours, proving again that "epic" doesn't mean "ass bustingly long running time". It's a "western" that's not set in the wild west we normally think of. It's also a movie I loved wholeheartedly and will definitely be going on my list of favorite movies of the 70's, maybe our greatest decade of filmmaking.

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