Papa Octopus Productions and Vega Baby present the release of “A Reckoning”, a Drama/Western film Written and Directed by Justin Lee (Big Legend) see review https://adamthemoviegod.com/big-legend-review-something-lie-beyond-the-woods/. A Reckoning is set in the 1800’s and picks up with Mary O’Malley (played by June Dietrich), the wife of a farmer whom she comes to learn was just brutally murdered. Seeking revenge, Mary leaves her life behind and vows at all costs to hunt down the man responsible. The film also stars Kevin Makely and Todd A. Robinson (Big Legend), as well as, Lance Henriksen (Aliens) and Meg Foster (They Live). Immediately after A Reckoning’s credits started rolling I began looking at some of the reviews for it online. Much to my surprise I only found a couple. The first was quite receptive and constructive in his feedback, the second not so much. Opting instead, to personally attack Lee and a number of those involved with the film (despite initially saying he doesn’t go on the personal attack). I have to ask what purpose does that serve? Honestly. Why would anyone want to deter others from doing something they’re clearly passionate about? It makes no sense to me why we tear each other down. This particular critic panned A Reckoning as if it were an amateur hour production, slapped together by a bunch of students going through the motions in order to get extra credit on an assignment. Not only were the comments disrespectful, they have zero merits. Now I’m well aware that we all see different things in a film, but some things are just fact. The sky is black at night, right? A Rubix cube is the shape of a cube, yeah? (cue 27 more examples). Needless to say, this particular reviewer lost all credibility in one fell swoop. That being said, I’m not saying Justin’s latest film is perfect because it’s not. Let’s get into it.
What we have here is a good old fashion American western. A Reckoning was conceived on a modest budget (to say the least) by a filmmaker who’s clearly a fan of the longstanding genre. Lee is a proud and dedicated independent filmmaker who’s hard work speaks for itself (having made three films with limited cast and crew and in quick succession). The film comes across as more of a love letter to the genre rather than an action spectacle set in that very familiar world. Justin Janowitz, who served as the DP on Justin’s aforementioned film Big Legend, returns here. He frames everything nicely and utilizes what is a simple but beautiful landscape, in order to get the most bang for buck in regards to the cinematic look and feel. The sets are plain, as they would’ve been in that era, and the costumes are fittingly hardened leather and wool with colors made up of mostly earthy tones. Lee’s clear willingness to get to numerous locations, if for no other reason than to shoot coverage for establishing shots in order to build this lost world, is something to be praised. A lot of filmmakers wouldn’t bother going to those sorts of lengths. The overcast beach scenes are reminiscent of those in the post-apocalyptic survival film “The Road”. The films audio track is loud and clear, and composer, Jared Forman is no stranger to those recognizable western tones (having worked on TV’s Hell On Wheels). Lee’s introduction of Mary comes layered with subtle blues, via acoustic guitar, and later, transitions into some much darker notes with a choir singing underneath them. Sweeping violins and cello enter the fold when the drama of the piece heightens.
Plenty of film fans have been calling for stronger female protagonists and more focus on that part of the storytelling process for a while now. Westerns, in particular, have primarily been a male-dominated culture (minus the odd film here and there). It’s a nice change of pace to see Dietrich at the core of this narrative, and even Meg Foster impresses as Ms. Maple, a townie who sympathizes with Mary at the beginning of the film. Both her and Henriksen, playing a town elder of sorts, give the film another level of depth as they showcase their expertise through a couple of lengthy yarns. In fact, this is the best I’ve seen Lance in years. He takes command with every moment he’s on screen. June is solid as the strong-minded Mary, though, with just the basics of an arc, one might have hoped she’d display a wider range of expressions. I’m a little disappointed that Robinson (who was so damn good in Big Legend) doesn’t have a lot to do here. I feel like if given the chance, this guy could chew scenery with the best of them. Kevin Makely shows up for the third act, and despite the questions that come with his character “Marrow”, he turns in a lively display to close the film. To the untrained eye, A Reckoning could perhaps appear to be a case of style over substance. I’d argue that Lee knows the confines of making a film like this on such a small budget, and that’s primarily why it’s not an action-heavy film. With that said, the fight choreography is still decent and there are a couple of on-screen kills. Better than that, Mary carries the same reservations that one in a similar inexperienced position would. Lee doesn’t once make her out to be Black Widow or Wonder Woman, she’s grounded, and the learning curve that comes with that is made obvious through some of her failures.
You’ll probably be left with a few questions at the end of A Reckoning, and certain details perhaps aren’t as fleshed out as adequately as they could have been. The main issue here is the same one that I have with a lot of westerns, it’s a slow-burn. I like a good slower paced method of storytelling if everything gets explored during that timeframe. Unfortunately, due to the lack of action (mostly a budgetary constraint), a lot of what we’re left with for this 80-minute runtime are long-winded transitions and copious amounts of interaction with secondary characters who never really fully figure into the equation. There’s a ten-minute scene involving a local trader that Mary happens upon. It does serve as a means for her supplies but they talk for what seems like forever, and she eventually stays the night. The sequence probably could have been cut in half and it wouldn’t have lost anything. Marrow (so in turn Kevin) goes on what can only be described as an environmentally defensive rant in the latter stages of the film and seeing as though it’s our first look at the character, there’s no real significance to any of it. Short of mentioning a trail that most travelers seem to take, Mary never reveals how she knows where to find the mystery man, or who he even is. I guess she figures it’ll be obvious when the time comes (which turns out to be true), but still, can anyone say coincidence? The film may have benefited from introducing a flashback scene involving Marrow and the late husband, giving the audience at least a piece of the puzzle in relation to what went down. In addition, it serves to break up the monotony of Mary’s constant travels. Speaking of her journey, after she takes care of a certain bit of business (those who’ve seen it will know the scene I’m referring to) I expected she’d want to get her horse back? Especially when it’s going to potentially save you a day or two on foot. I thought that element of her story was a touch thin.
I’m really surprised that Justin Lee’s, A Reckoning isn’t getting more love from critics and western fans alike. Other than perhaps “Jane Got A Gun”, and to a lesser extent “Brimstone” (which was epic), both of which featured heavy hitting casts and were made on much bigger budgets, there’s been little in the way of female orientated protagonists within the genre. It’s important to understand the Director’s intent and the restrictions that almost always come with DIY, independent filmmaking. If you don’t, perhaps you’re not the best person equipt to be critiquing it. A Reckoning has plenty working in its favor. The cinematography is high-class, the set design looks neat and the costumes were given the appropriate sense of detail. The music is some of the best I’ve heard in a while and each of the performances is solid. In spite of what could be considered a reserved visage, Dietrich holds it all together, and Lance Henriksen and Meg Foster deliver some of their best work in recent memory. The slow burn nature is bound to put some viewers off, and I’ll be honest by saying it does get a little strenuous at times. I think had we got more of a look at Makely’s character and that lead up to his conclusion with Mary’s husband, it might have evened things out somewhat. Not all of the decision-making seems logical, nor do we gain any solid proof behind Mary’s knowledge of Marrow’s whereabouts or identity. I’m not going to fault Lee for the film’s lack of action because I have a good grasp of the limitations on a film like this. A Reckoning is clearly Justin’s avenue for showing an appreciation and love of the genre and I can’t see how that could possibly be a bad thing. If you’re a fan of simplistic storytelling in the parameters of a western, this one is well worth your time. You can purchase the film on DVD and it’s also available through various streaming platforms now. Check out the trailer below!
My rating for “A Reckoning” is 6.5/10