Recently I watched a couple of films featuring immigrant stories of today: The Marksman (2021) and Minari (2020). One thing that struck me was how both these films continued classic Western storylines within a modern framework. These were both 4-5 stars for me, so I thought I’d jot some thoughts down.
The Marksman stars Liam Neeson as Jim, a veteran-turned-rancher whose house is situated right on the border between Arizona and Mexico. Jim believes in borders and the work of the Border Patrol, but he also has compassion for the plight of illegal immigrants. One such family, a mother and her son, turns to him for help after crawling through the fence. In a harrowing turn of events, he finds himself the guardian of the son, Miguel (Jacob Perez), and on the run from Mauricio, a gang member intent on avenging his dead brother and taking Miguel back to Mexico.
I was inexpressibly happy to see the protagonists were well developed. Jim is a fair representation of either a Trumper or a libertarian (take your pick). At heart, he values humanity and honor above rules or ideology, which is why he ends up on a path of self-sacrifice instead of self-centeredness. Miguel, meanwhile, is a child who is forced to grow up before his time, and the struggle inside him—the child vs. the young man—is manifested repeatedly. Mauricio’s personal trauma plays a large part in his actions as well.
Plot-wise, this is your typical “extended chase scene” Western, so some may find parts of it slow. Personally, there was more than enough action to keep me interested. I also enjoyed the cinematography and minor characters we meet along the way.
If The Marksman is the 21st-century Wild West, then Minari is the 20th century “Little House.” Set in 1980s Arkansas, this bilingual film follows Jacob (Steven Yeun) and Monica (Yeri Han) who have just arrived in the countryside with their two children, Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim). Jacob’s dream is to have an acreage and farm, selling produce to other Korean immigrants. Monica misses urban life and fears for her son’s health—David’s heart condition is her constant worry. Faced with increasing disappointments and the difficulty of living with Monica’s mother Soonja (Yuh-Jung Youn), the family’s close bonds are put to the ultimate test.
I felt this film was very naturalistic. Not gritty per se; it’s good family viewing. But each of the characters is presented in all their flaws and little-to-no Hollywood glam. This is a story about a flawed father, a bitter mother, a salty grandmother, and several quirky side characters straight from a Flannery O’Connor story. The anguish of moving to a new place and trying to make a living off the land feels like 1800s stuff, yet we see it in the context of a small local farmer trying to compete against Californians and it still makes sense. I was fascinated by the role of Christianity and Monica’s challenge to keep her faith while being married to a skeptic. There were many moments of brightness amidst the gloom, but overall, the ending left me feeling rather depressed.
Minari is indeed a slow film, but if you enjoy a realistic portrayal of family life and farming—neither Disney-like good nor outrageously bad—then I think you will find much to appreciate in it. I don’t know that I would rewatch it soon, but I probably will in the distant future.