Friday, April 8, 2011

Movie Review: Meek's Cutoff

Meek’s Cutoff ****
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt.
Written By: Jonathan Raymond.
Starring: Bruce Greenwood (Stephen Meek), Michelle Williams (Emily Tetherow), Will Patton (Soloman Tetherow), Shirley Henderson (Glory White), Neal Huff (William White), Paul Dano (Thomas Gately), Zoe Kazan (Millie Gately), Rod Rondeaux (The Cayuse).

Kelly Reichardt has quickly established herself as one of the best filmmakers of her generation. She specializes in those movies that make some in the audience complain that “nothing happened”, but that’s only because her films are so subtle, so quiet that many people miss the little things that make her films so special. It is in those quiet moments between two people in her films that everything happens – and seemingly small incidents are really the turning points of her stories.

Meek’s Cutoff is her latest film, and while it is larger in scale than her previous films, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, it is no less well observed. It is a film that takes place on a wagon train journey across Oregon in the 1840s, and yet it is completely devoid of the clichés that usually make up those films. The film opens with the settlers gathered around in a circle talking about whether or not they should hang their guide Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who they hired to bring them to their new home, and who ended up leading them on a shortcut to nowhere, and are now helplessly lost. Later in the film these same settlers, along with Meek this time, will gather again to discuss whether or not they should hang the Cayuse Indian they have captured, because they think that he is following them – setting them up for slaughter at the hands of his tribe some time down the line. Although she is not truly involved in these discussions – it is work for men – it really is Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) who holds the most sway. She is the moral center of the movie, who will argue against hanging either man, because they need them to lead them out of the desert they find themselves in. Only in a film by Reichardt would a simple act of kindness – like Emily repairing the Cayuse’s shoe – be the real turning point in the movie. “I want him to owe me something” she says at the time – and depending on how you read the ending, which is as ambigious as the infamous ending of John Sayles Limbo, it may be the smartest thing she ever does.

Meek’s Cutoff is a daring movie for several reasons. For one thing, audiences raised on Westerns have certain expectations of a wagon train movie like this (see John Ford aptly titled Wagon Master for an example), and Reichardt provides none of those things in her movie. She makes the interesting choice to shoot in 1.33:1, instead of the typical widescreen that you would normally use for a movie that provides this many opportunities for sweeping vistas shots – opportunities that Reichardt does not use. She keeps her camera squarely on the people in her film – eliminating their past and their future, concentrating solely on their present predicament, The guide is supposed to be some kind of hero, but Greenwood’s Meek is anything but. He has wild hair, a crazy beard, and strange eyes, and really he leads them all out to the middle of the desert with no exit strategy (prompting many to see the film as an allegory for the current War in Iraq, which is certainly a valid interpretation). The women are supposed to be weak and subservient, but Michelle Williams’ character is really the strongest of them all. She controls her husband (Will Patton), who controls the rest of the group – including the weak willed Thomas (Paul Dano), and the overly religious William (Neil Huff), who refuses to eat to the point of starvation.

This is a movie where the subtlest moments are the most important. To the unobservatant, it may look like “nothing happens” in Meek’s Cutoff, but that ignores the quiet moments where the entire movie dynamic changes. It takes skill in the performance to pull this off – and Michelle Williams proves once again why she is one of the best actresses of her generation, as she is able to be the moral center of the film, without upstaging the rest of them. But everyone has their moments – even the largely quiet Rod Rondeaux as the Cayuse Indian, who cannot communicate with the others on the journey, but still observes so much. The cinematography for the film is wonderful, and brings out these subtle moments, and has a wonderful dusty, dirty feel to it, that reminded me of the 1970s work on Terence Malick (even if Malick preferred widescreen). Meek’s Cutoff is a subtle film, but one that builds tremendous emotional power as it goes along. Nothing happens? Only if you’re not paying attention.

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