Sydney Film Festival Review: Mekko

An inspired blend of hardboiled neo-noir and Native American mysticism, it’s hard not to admire the ambition on display in Sterlin Harjo‘s Mekko. The film sees the titular ex-con struggle to survive on the streets of Oklahoma City only to find that while modern life is very different to that of his ancestors, the threats presented by malevolent spirits linger on.

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When it comes to the genre’s history of brooding protagonists, Mekko finds himself a natural fit. Mekko (Rod Rondeaux) himself casts an impressive shadow with his feathered-cap further distinguishing his silhouette. Beyond this visual, however,  he’s a bit of a muddled allegory. As a character, he’s a challenge to pin down and it’s never clear if he’s being written as a representation of the struggles of minorities, ex-cons, the homeless or the all-too-common combination of all three. Rondeaux’ performance conveys the idea that there’s a lot of nuance to this character under the surface. Unfortunately, that complexity never feels adequately tapped by the film’s script.

Likewise, Mekko’s script works to emphasise the humanity of various characters that Mekko encounters but more oft than not, performances are too mechanical to match the material really gets fleshed out to the same degree. The only real standouts here are Mekko’s friend Matt (Scott Mason) and the film’s antagonist (Zahn McClarnon) for whom sociopathic silence does most of the work.

As a result, it always feels like something is off in the film’s dialogue and things feel like they’re unfolding far slower than they actually are (though if the crisp 84-minute runtime doesn’t reflect that). Even so, the film’s final confrontation felt like it was all over too quickly and it gallops towards the credits seemingly without a thought for the consequences of Mekko’s actions. Put simply, the film’s efforts to bring both style and substance to the table trip over one another and while the results are interesting to behold, they never quite reach their potential.

Harjo’s direction and cinematography are similarly at odds. Locations ripe for the noir-treatment are instead shot through a realist lens. Meanwhile, more mundane moments are handled into a darkly atmospheric fashion. A reserved and ominous soundtrack does salvage the film somewhat but it can only do so much. Taking each individual element at work, Mekko is easy to appreciate. However, its impact is never extends beyond the sum of its parts. 

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As a film, Mekko‘s heart is in the right place. As a character, Mekko is a cipher – and a lack of understanding of him quickly unravels the film’s better qualities. The film’s audacious efforts to tie together the struggles of Native American authenticity with the tropes of neo-noir thriller are admirable. Unfortunately, the results don’t deliver.

Mekko is showing at this year’s Sydney Film Festival. More information and screening details available here.