Nothing new here for Kelly Reichardt, the respected Amerindie director of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. Meek’s Cutoff, like them, is a quiet, meandering tale about people lost and confused in the Pacific Northwest. Except that this time she’s made a minimalist, politically emphatic western, which labors solemnly with the issue of the white racism of the people who settled the American West in the mid-nineteenth century, while following three wagon-training Oregon Trail traveling families relying on a hirsute mountain man (and Indian killer) to lead them over the Cascade mountains. He gets lost, and they find an Indian. The kicker is that for all we ever know the Indian, who takes over guiding them, may be lost too. While Meek (veteran nasty Bruce Greenwood, a bit better than in his clunky recent turn in Mao’s Last Dancer) wants to execute the Indian from the first, the sensible liberal who mends his moccasin by way of conciliation and wards Meek off is Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), one of three plucky, laconic young wives in bonnets, whose long cotton dresses seem like armor against the ravages of a cruel desert that progressively smudges everybody’s faces with dirt because they haven’t enough water to wash.
Reichardt certainly approaches the Western, or more accurately the world of American school history books, with a fresh eye. This is as startling a look at the 19th-century West as E.L. Doctorow’s in Welcome to Hard Times, though instead of a verbal picture of a dead-end frontier town and a lawless destroyer, this is primarily a matter of visuals, specifically the striking 1.33 aspect ratio natural-light imagery (which lends an old-timey quality) of Chris Blauvelt, and of a cool, remote approach where the dialogue among men is often imperfectly audible in the middle distance, as if this were all from the women’s point of view, which it mostly is. “What are they saying?” one lady asks another, of the men. It’s a given that if the ladies are to prevail, it must be outside the posturing and debates. Nobody really lets on much how scared, desperate, or worn out they are, though the water is getting low and the prospect of ever seeing the sought-for Willamette Valley is growing remote. But it is consistently Mrs. Tetherow who first casts doubt on Meek’s competency, and then defends the Indian (stunt man Rod Rondeaux). If they’d only had an interpreter. The Indian talks plenty, in his language. But there is no verbal communication possible between the whites and the Indian and little real communication among anybody. The camera is often distant as the dialogue is faint.
Sometimes the stilted redundancy of Jon Raymond’s dialogue seems downright silly, as in exchanges like: “I am doubtful.”–“I too have doubts.” And Paul Dano’s habitually pompous manner (which made him well cast for P.T. Anderson’s fraudulent preacher in There Will Be Blood) doesn’t help any to moderate the absurdity here. Ultimately the individuals on the trip are barely delineated. There’s also only bare-bones action, though there are several serious mishaps, and that is the point. The film is about the gathering dread of a journey where nobody is really in charge and nobody knows anything. Sometimes the meticulous images and the sense of a strangely confined-feeling space really are enough, and sometimes the whole fantasy threatens to vanish into thin air. Maybe a slight air of conscious absurdity, such as Jim Jarmusch achieves in the opening sequences of Dead Man, helps protect an original interpretation of period better than a deadpan manner.
You don’t get close to anybody here — Reichardt is normally at one remove from her characters — but unlike the director’s previous two films, this plays out on a broader canvas in every sense. There are many more characters in play. The wide open spaces of the desert scenery (especially dramatized in two striking shots of night sky dotted with palpable clouds) provide a sense of openness and possibility despite the harsh prospects of the travelers. There is a chance of appeal to a broader audience, and Reichardt has used a bigger and more known and seasoned cast. Besides Michelle Williams from the last film, there is Greenwood, Will Patton, emerging newcomer Zoe Kazan, and other experienced actors, including Brit Shirley Henderson. Even 13-year-old Tommy Nelson as Henderson’s son, is an acting vet.
Meek’s Cutoff is an odd mixture. The images are textured and beautiful, and the feel of the pioneer experience has authenticity about it even though characters and incident are underdeveloped. But the film is heavy-handed, sometimes unintentionally comic, in its handling of nineteenth-century sexual roles and prejudices. This is not a situation for subtlety, perhaps, but when the dialogue is sparse it ought to have been better. The ending is both lame and blunt. Reichardt’s stories are about people going nowhere, but this time she’s approached an adventure story and drained all the excitement out of it (retaining only a touch of dread). Since the genre is so familiar, it’s hard not to think of other directors who’d have made something more powerful or more subtle — or both — out of these raw materials. As the New Yorker critic David Denby said, this is “as if John Ford had been overtaken along the trail by Samuel Beckett,” and this movie “is almost punitive to sit through.” Nonetheless the whole concept is unique, the cinematography is fine, and Jeff Grace’s very sparing music is one thing that really is subtle.
Meek’s Cutoff has won passionate devotees. I’m not one of them.
Debuted at Venice, included in Toronto, London, and other festivals, including New York and, right now (April 2011) San Francisco. Opened in the UK April 15, 2011.
DIRECTOR: KELLY REICHARDT
WRITER: JONATHAN RAYMOND
CAST: MICHELLE WILLIAMS, BRUCE GREENWOOD, WILL PATTON, ZOE KAZAN, PAUL DANO, SHIRLEY HENDERSON
RUNTIME: 102 MINS