I take any chance I can to tell people about the show Reservation Dogs. If you get Hulu it’s on there – just 3 seasons, a total of 28 half hour episodes, not heavy on continuity, not a huge time commitment. In a way it’s comparable to my other favorite recent show, Atlanta, in that it’s just this incredible cast where every character is really hilarious to me in a different way, and also because the writers and directors are narratively playful and free. They’re willing to leave their teenage protagonists to do an episode all about the elders, then later one all about the elders when they were teenagers, then an episode where one of today’s teenagers meets a weirdo recluse who we start to realize was one of the kids in that flashback episode who has become estranged from the others. Things like that. But also it’s a very potent show about friendship and dealing with loss, so it’s the funniest show that I always find myself trying not to cry at.
They ended it this year and I already miss it, so it’s a good time for me to track down the handful of indie movies creator Sterlin Harjo did in the pre-Rez Dogs part of his career. I previously reviewed his debut feature FOUR SHEETS TO THE WIND, sort of a romance. Now I’ve skipped to his third one, MEKKO (2015), which Wikipedia describes as a thriller. That wouldn’t have occurred to me but yeah, I guess it makes sense to call it that. Mostly it’s just a slice of life following this big quiet guy named Mekko (Rod Rondeaux, MEEK’S CUTOFF, HOSTILES, THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS) getting out of prison after 19 years and trying to survive on the streets of Tulsa.
It starts out seeming as gloomy as that sounds, and stereotypically indie, with Mekko (but it doesn’t sound like his voice) narrating in Muskogee language about growing up with his grandma and cousin Johnny before their lead-poisoned town was abandoned, and things his grandma told him about shapeshifters, evil spirits and witches. (Rez Dogs shares this inclusion of mystical elements and leaving it up to you to decide how literally to take them.) Those things will come up later, but the overall feeling of the movie is more represented by our introduction to Mekko leaving the prison. The guard out front seems genuinely concerned, asks if he has a ride and a place to stay. He says he does, then starts walking down the highway.
He tells us he killed his cousin, doesn’t tell us the details yet. Trying to visit his cousin’s family doesn’t go well. Johnny was an artist, respected enough that there’s a gallery showing his art. Mekko’s really proud of that and talks about him to anyone he meets who knows how to draw.
He seems to always have a little bit of money, though it’s never specific about how much or where he gets it. We don’t see him working or begging, and he’s often able to buy hot dogs or go to a bar. He likes to go to a pie place where a really nice waitress (Sarah Podemski, who will later play Rita Smallhill, basically the central mom of Reservation Dogs) likes talking to him and gives him extra food sometimes, but he doesn’t push it.
He hangs out on a block with a small movie theater where they have posters for Denis Villeneuve’s ENEMY and Harjo’s BARKING WATER. He starts meeting a bunch of other people who live on the streets, most of them Native, and hears how they look out for each other from some guys who really seem like real guys having real conversations, not actors.
Before long he runs into an old friend, Bunnie (Wotko Long). I thought at first he knew him from prison, but I guess they grew up together. At first I was thinking uh oh, somebody from the past that’s gonna want something from him, but it’s not that kind of party. Bunnie is a really sweet guy and they hang out together and it’s cool.
Mekko doesn’t seem too concerned about a weird junkie dude (Scott Mason, YELLOW) bothering him, and even brings him food, but then that dude turns up dead and a bunch of people are standing around watching the cops deal with the body and one of them is a scary dude with neck tattoos. His name is Bill and he’s played by Zahn McClarnon, right around the time I first noticed him, running away with Fargo season 2 as the badass Hanzee. That year he also had a small part in BONE TOMAHAWK and I thought, “oh shit, it’s Hanzee!,” but he didn’t get to do much. Since then I’ve seen him in BRAVEN, DOCTOR SLEEP, Hawkeye and NO HARD FEELINGS, and many people know him from Longmire or Dark Winds. But best of all he played Officer Big, the lighthorseman on Reservation Dogs, where he got to completely transform my image of him, playing this well-meaning doofus. Everybody makes fun of Big, but also they like him, and so do you. He’s seen Bigfoot and Deer Lady, he has his own mispronunciations of words, like “organtic,” he believes the moon landing was fake, but he’s okay.
It’s kinda funny to get used to that and then see the first Harjo-McClarnon collaboration and remember oh yeah, Zahn McClarnon used to specialize in playing scary guys. Bill is nothing like Big but he’s also the opposite of Mekko – doesn’t shut up, pokes his nose into everybody’s business, preys on everybody, is mean to everybody, kills people on purpose. We’d know to fear him even if we didn’t catch glimpses of him turning violent, often shot like we stumbled across something we weren’t supposed to be seeing. So of course he tells Mekko that they’re alike, they’re both warriors, blah blah blah.
He tells Mekko how much he respects him and the next day Mekko wakes up with his hat stolen and Bill strutting around wearing it, just to provoke him. It’s the first time we’ve seen Mekko ready to harm someone, but Bunnie convinces him it’s not worth making waves.
That changes when Bill starts bullying Bunnie. Mekko finally cuts him down with words, telling him he’s not special, he knew a hundred kids exactly like him in prison. It’s impressive to see Mekko looking down at Bill, demonstrating how small he actually is, putting him in his place. But also it unleashes the dread because we know for sure Bill won’t let this go.
That’s where the thriller part comes in, and Mekko also has to worry about somebody slitting his pockets while he’s asleep and stuff like that. The struggles are effective, and things get dark, but the memorable parts of the movie to me are just the little vignettes about these characters talking, telling stories, looking out for each other. Harjo’s brother Bronnson Tre Harjo is really good as Allen, a younger guy who ends up on the street after his girlfriend dumps him. He’s kinda fucked up, but so is Mekko, and he likes him and is concerned about him.
This is not the only point in MEKKO’s favor, but there obviously aren’t enough movies that even acknowledge the existence of Native cultures in the present day. I like how over the course of the movie we see Native musical expression in several different contexts: ceremonial singing, more of a blues-like singing, traditional singing from a bunch of dudes but they’re in a bar wearing football jerseys, a guy rapping. There are customs that are important to them and they interpret them in modern ways.
There are a few interviews still online of Harjo promoting MEKKO, so I was able to confirm my hunch that some of the scenes star real people who were living on the streets of Tulsa, talking about their lives. Harjo was inspired by Werner Herzog’s STROSZEK but also felt that “making a film about a homeless Native community and casting all actors would have felt like such a plastic, unnatural thing. The auditions themselves would have been so offensive to my soul.” Instead he met people at the soup kitchen shown in the movie and told them the story, and they would tell him it was what happened to them or someone they knew. He even ran into a homeless guy he had known in high school who helped out. In the restaurants he purposely shot during business hours, with real customers and employees in the background.
Rondeaux is an actor but has more credits for stunts. He did them in THE POSTMAN, WILD WILD WEST, THE SCORPION KING, 3:10 TO YUMA, THE REVENANT – mostly movies with horses. That actually makes sense – you can imagine Mekko being a stuntman in another life. He has a very appealing old school, stoic kind of presence. He carries himself in a very serious but humble way, mostly very closed off, though he opens up to certain people after spending enough time with them. He can laugh with Bunnie, and be vulnerable, or affectionate. They’ll hold each other up when they’re both drunk. Bunnie’s the only one he tells the story of killing his cousin, and for a second I wondered if it was gonna break the relationship, but Bunnie understands. It’s a pair of really great, natural performances playing characters who we accept as good people who have made mistakes and don’t deny it or complain about their situation.
Harjo’s visual and editing style got much more cinematic by the time of the TV show, but the heart was always there. He finds these really interesting actors (professional or otherwise) and lets them play these characters who remind us that behind all our flaws we’re all people who deserve to be listened to, to have a laugh, to live. (Except Bill. He’s a shapeshifter or something.)
If you’re interested in seeing MEKKO I don’t think there’s ever been a DVD, but it’s currently free with ads on Tubi or the Roku channel, or you can rent or buy it digitally on Amazon.