The past haunts and predetermines the path taken by Matt McCormick's latest film project, The Great Northwest, a nearly wordless, travelogue-based documentary that returns the director to his experimental roots, following the more narrative-based musings of his feature debut, Some Days Are Better Than Others. McCormick traces a long journey taken by four women in the late 1950s; a recreational odyssey of the past unearthed by the filmmaker when he purchased a scrapbook filled with photos and various other ephemera from the trip. Inspired by his find, he decided to repeat the voyage, traveling the same route and comparing the sights as they stood in 1958 with how they appear in the present day.
The women (Bev, Berta, Sissie and Clarice) were all nearing 40 when they headed out on the road, before the interstate highway system made such journeys as direct as they often are today. But even before the lonely stretches of I-5 and its paved brethren came into being, theirs was a path that appears loosely planned, guided by whim and the spirit of spontaneity. Sure, they (and McCormick) hit some pretty significant landmarks (Yellowstone National Park, Multnomah Falls, etc.) but the majority of the stops are at small, lesser known restaurants and attractions.
The Great Northwest rarely strays from the structure that McCormick lays out at the introduction of the film. If the ladies visited a spot, he and his camera are headed there, too. With a form some might unfairly dismiss as smacking of NPR-aesthetics, the piece easily could have descended into dry journalistic cliches but there's a winking humor and intelligence present throughout that prevents the piece from unraveling in familiar or expected ways.
Finer details of the journey, such as overheard bits of conversation as McCormick visits various locations, a long, slow drift through a cattle cluttered stretch of road, or, especially, the sole moment where the filmmaker steps out in front of his camera to be photographed atop an (once living?) animal, keep the film humming along at a rhythm all its own. And, speaking of the person behind the camera, it certainly doesn't hurt that McCormick exhibits a great eye for capturing landscapes, either.