Sundance environmental films: nature and the journey

Stories involving journeys through mysterious, and potentially hostile, natural environments are as old as… well, stories themselves. This year’s Sundance Film Festival features two such narratives in the Spotlight category: Christopher Munch’s LETTERS FROM THE BIG MAN, and Kelly Reichardt’s MEEK’S CUTOFF. Though quite different in terms of historical setting, each bases its narrative on a trip into the wilderness… and the struggles and discoveries (both internal and external) inevitably accompany such undertakings.

MEEK’S CUTOFF takes the viewer back to the 19th century, and American westward expansion. As three families journey along the Oregon trail, they must engage with both an unforgiving environment, a potentially untrustworthy guide, and a Native American captive who may represent their only hope for survival. Peter Bradshaw’s review of the Venice Film Festival screening describe Reichardt’s work as “…a film of great tension, and almost Beckettian harshness on the barest of stages.”

Bigfoot movies are nothing new, either, but LETTERS FROM THE BIG MAN is far removed from, say, HARRY AND THE HENDERSONS. A hydrologist’s journey into the Oregon wilderness brings her into contact with a Sasquatch with whom she forges a bond… and whom she fights to protect. The film’s “metaphysical love story” explores the dynamics of human interaction with the natural world.. and the potential for communication between the two.

This particular narrative motif has seen both creative and clichéd renderings on film… some past Sundance entries that make compelling use of the journey into the wild include:

  • HERO (1984): Alexandre Rockwell’s film moves from Eastern city to Western desert, and mingles past and present into a journey through “the desert of the soul.”
  • THE DESCENT (2006): Neil Marshall’s “visually splendid horror thriller” explores friendship and fear within the context of cave exploration in the Appalachian Mountains.

Got favorite films that center on a journey into the natural world? Share them with us… If you’re heading to the Sundance Film Festival, you can catch the first screenings MEEK’S CUTOFF and LETTERS FROM THE BIG MAN on January 21st and 23rd in Park City.


Image source: Sundance Film Festival Press Center