'Mekko': Film Review

Mekko - H 2015
Courtesy of Indion Entertainment
A strong example of regional American filmmaking.

After two decades in stir, a Native American man navigates life on the streets of Tulsa, facing a foe who might be an evil spirit.

With its lived-in faces and downbeat locations, Oklahoma-based filmmaker Sterlin Harjo’s third narrative feature gets under the skin. Mekko infuses street-smart realism with Native American mysticism to create a quietly haunting portrait of fringe dwellers and castoffs. A simple story with a strong sense of place and affecting central performances, the film is sure to follow its recent Toronto slot with more festival bookings. In the hands of the right distributor, it could connect with appreciative art-house audiences.

In his first feature lead, Rod Rondeaux, a former rodeo rider and longtime Hollywood stunt performer, holds the center as the title character, at once loose-limbed and sorrowful. Released from prison after serving 19 years for murder, Mekko finds that his relatives want nothing to do with him. With the smallest of gestures, a stranger, coffee shop waitress Tafv (Sarah Podemski), proves infinitely more generous. And Mekko gets a warm welcome from old friend Bunnie (Wotko Long), one of Tulsa's self-described "street chiefs"  — a community of homeless Native Americans who watch one another’s backs while managing a bare-bones subsistence.

But the homeless camp at the edge of the city reveals a malevolent figure, Bill, who considers himself a warrior protecting his people. Played with a Charles Manson stare by Zahn McClarnon (of the series Fargo and Longmire), Bill antagonizes the usually mellow Bunnie. Mekko sees him not as an everyday adversary but an estekini, a shape-shifting witch who figures in the lore of his people, the Muscogee (aka Creek) Nation.

The drama becomes an elemental showdown between good and evil, defined by two acts of shocking violence. The first, presented in stylized fashion, isn’t entirely convincing in visual terms, but the second has a visceral, mythical impact as a grisly act of primal purification.

Director of photography Shane Brown (who also shot Harlin’s 2014 doc, This May Be the Last Time) combines a straightforward documentary style with expressionistic touches that include the use of black-and-white imagery. There are elements of both approaches in Mekko’s memories of the lead-mining town where his grandmother raised him, long since abandoned because of water contamination. In striking views of the ghost town and in the faces onscreen, a history of marginalization and dislocation casts its indelible shadow.

Nostalgia and the pain of irreparable loss are nearly indistinguishable in these characters' lives. It’s an ache that colors Mekko’s exchanges with Allen (Tre Harjo), a young man at loose ends to whom he extends a protective hand. Within its allegorical framework, Harjo’s film is a report from the jobless front, the realm of soup kitchens, listless days and rambling, drunken nights. Yet the elegiac and the joyful are inseparable, and cultural pride finds expression in casual asides, like the one that pays tribute to the Muscogee artist/actor Will Sampson (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).

A judiciously used voiceover in Mvskoke, the language of the Muscogee, accentuates the theme of lost homes and broken spirits. Those poetic words are a kind of music, too, in a film whose rich yet understated soundtrack includes Ryan Beveridge’s plangent and eerie score, a tribal chant in the middle of a barroom, the indigenous drumming of a street musician, and a mournful Creek hymn lovingly sung by first-time actor Long.

Rondeaux, who had a memorable role in Meek’s Cutoff, creates an absorbing characterization as the laconic Mekko. Nerves jumping beneath his calm demeanor, he’s a man facing down his own demons as much as he is avenging a recent crime. There’s terrific detail in the pared-down performance, as in the moment of hesitation after a fast-food server asks Mekko, fresh out of prison, for his name. In the silence before he answers, you can see him calculating where he’s been, coming to terms with how he got to this street corner in Tulsa.

Production companies: A Jasper Z presentation of a Crazy Eagle 

Film production in association with Indion Entertainment

Cast: Rod Rondeaux, Zahn McClarnon, Wotko Long, Sarah Podemski, Tre Harjo, Scott Mason, Pee Wee Bruner, Cory Northern, Trent Duncan

Director: Sterlin Harjo

Screenwriter: Sterlin Harjo

Producers: Jasper Zweibel, Sterlin Harjo, Chad Burris

Executive producers: Stuart Zweibel, Athena Kaporis, Spyros Dimitratos, Sam Beran, Jane Muqaddam

Director of photography: Shane Brown

Production designer: Sean P. Egan

Editors: Sterlin Harjo, Blackhorse Lowe, Matt Leach

Composer: Ryan Beveridge

Additional music: Nathan Young

No rating, 84 minutes