Tuesday, December 30, 2008

D*#k Flick: Jeremiah Johnson

It's been awhile since The Common Man has watched a real man's movie. As The Common Man once opined, "Guys need more movies just for them. Movies they don't have to share. Movies their wives and girlfriends will be embarrassed to admit seeing." The Common Man also should have noted that said movies should actually be decent and fun to watch, since reviewing The Condemned almost turned The Common Man off from the enterprise entirely. He almost bagged it all and lit out for the territories, leaving his DirecTV behind. But, then, Battlestar Galactica and Lost are starting back up this January, so The Common Man thought better of it.

If he'd done it though, it probably would have gone something like Jeremiah Johnson, the 1972 Frontier drama starring super-duper-mega-star Robert Redford. Several weeks ago, The Deacon (The Common Man's private brewmaster, Godfather to The Boy, and paragon of manliness) recommended the film to The Common Man as a moving portrayal of the manly virtues. The film begins with a disillusioned Johnson (Redford), leaving civilization behind to live as a trapper in the Rocky Mountains. After abandoning the American war effort in Mexico (it's telling the film is released at the end of the Vietnam War), Johnson believes he has no further use for human contact, and that a solitary life in the wild will help him find peace.

Yet, like so many young men who enter a larger world, Johnson is ill-equipped for the dangers he finds. His gun is inadequate and so are his survival skills. Eventually, Johnson is so desperate, he's reduced to trying to scoop trout from a freezing stream with his hands. Fortunately, he comes across salvation in finding the frozen body of a mountain man and his very big gun, and Bear Claw (Will Geer), a Yoda-like guru who takes Johnson in and teaches him how to trap, hunt, and avoid trouble.

Yet, even in his desire to be alone, Johnson cannot avoid the temptations of human contact and the call of civilization. (spoiler alert) He stops at a cabin to help a family destroyed by an Indian attack, and the grief-stricken mother sends her one remaining sun off with him. Later, while exchanging gifts with a tribe of Flathead, Johnson inadvertantly ends up with a wife. Together, they find a small place in the mountains and being a husband and father finally make Johnson happy.

However, while called away helping settlers through the mountain passes, his home is attacked by Crow, who massacre his wife and boy. Driven by grief and madness, Johnson avenges their deaths on the offending Crows, who then send warriors to kill him. Hunted, Johnson lives on his wits and his anger, and becomes the antithesis of what he was seeking. Rather than living peacefully, he becomes the embodiment of war and death, a boogie man both feared and respected. And aside from this fundamental shift in him, Johnson ends the film where he began, totally and utterly alone. End Spoiler.

Jeremiah Johnson is one of the manliest of films because of the hero's growth into manhood, and because he accepts the responsibilities of being a man. Though he doesn't initially want a wife or son, he refuses to abandon or sell them, taking care of them and building a life together. While not romantic in a traditional sense, his decision to allow them into his life eventually fills his heart with love and he's able to fulfill both key male roles, of husband and father, admirably. And when that love and identity is stripped from him, Johnson metes out retribution for the deaths of his family and others. Yet he maintains a strict morality about his justice, only hunting those hunt him. And despite his suffering, Johnson does not complain. Instead he says almost nothing, silently accepting his lot and preparing for his vengeance. He is not proud of what he has become, but nor does he turn from it. Plus, Redford wears a manly blonde beard.

Aside from these manly attributes, Jeremiah Johnson shines with brilliant performances, particularly by Redford and Geer. And the direction by Sydney Pollack is excellent. It is often a beautiful film, and often horrifying. Pollack appropriately captures both the majesty of the frontier, and the loneliness of it, and does not clutter the film with unnecessary sound effects. Instead, the film stands as empty as the wilderness, and on the strength of its story and acting.

The Common Man was duly impressed by this film, a largely overshadowed piece of the Redford and Western canons. It is profoundly sad, but oddly enjoyable. Depressing but impressive. It is cerebral and challenges its audience to continue to root for the protagonist, even when his blood lust is clearly up. And as a d*#k flick, it has most assuredly earned its two balls.

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