Something of a next-generation take on the themes in recently rediscovered indie classics “The Exiles” (1961) and “On the Bowery” (1956), Sterlin Harjo’s third narrative feature updates their semi-documentary views of Native American and Skid Row urban culture to latter-day Oklahoma, adding a supernaturally tinged suspense element. This low-key, impressionistic, loosely plotted tale is unlikely to expand much upon the commercial outreach achieved by his similarly angled “Four Sheets to the Wind” and “Barking Water.” Bur for the patient, “Mekko” offers another flavorful if largely downbeat snapshot of Native American life, one that should find favor with festival programmers and niche buyers.
When we first meet fiftysomething Mekko (rodeo pro turned film stuntman Rod Rondeaux), he’s just getting released after 19 years in prison for killing his much-liked artist cousin in a mutually drunken brawl. He’s done the punitive hard time both physically and spiritually. But the relative he visits for a hopeful reconciliation makes it clear that surviving Creek-tribe family members haven’t and will never forgive him. That leaves him homeless on the streets of Tulsa, where he soon encounters rambunctiously good-natured old pal Bunny (Wotko Long), and falls in with the vagrant population of street chiefs likewise scraping by sans safety net.
Casting himself as that community’s protector but in fact more of a predator is the sinister, younger Bill (Zahn McClarnon). He finds easy marks among their ranks for his proffered cash, drink and drugs, then enjoys claiming brutal (sometimes fatal) payback when they can’t make good on their “debts.” Credited as a seer since a childhood illness due to the water pollution that ended up vacating his lead-mining town, Mekko senses Bill may really be a sort of shape-shifting demon — one he needs to vanquish in order to regain his own long-lost essential tribal spirit.
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Not a lot happens here amid the vignettes of down-and-out life. Some street folk are found murdered, likely victims of Bill’s vindictiveness. Mekko gains a watchful ally in diner waitress Tafv (Sarah Podemski); he tries to provide the same support to Allan (Tre Harjo), a Native youth who’s dropped out of college and might easily drop farther into a substance-abusing spiral.
While Mekko himself tries to stay clean, his Tulsa liberty has its own boozy, untethered quality. Both gentle and tough in Rondeaux’s soulful performance, this man of few words wanders on the brink of a precipice whose yawning depths are implied in the film’s design textures. As grittily authentic as the street life here feels, Harjo also captures a near-hallucinogenic mood, particularly in the soundtrack’s complex mix of music and ambient noise.