Thursday, September 15, 2011

Meek's Cutoff

Grade: 97 (A)

1845. A group of settlers crossing a river, animals pulling their wagons. This is the last we’ll see water for quite some time. They’re headed across the desert, and every decision they make is life or death. It isn’t clear exactly how long they’ve been on this journey, except that it has been a very long time. They’re tired and dirty, they hardly speak, and they have a long ways to go. With that, Kelly Reichardt’s incredible film Meek’s Cutoff establishes what kind of a film this will be: bleak, deliberately paced, and without huge set-pieces to get the heart pumping every few minutes. This is a slow film, and yet it packs an enormous amount of tension into 100 minutes. Meek’s Cutoff is a revisionist western of the finest kind: a tale of America’s Manifest Destiny turned into a desperate survival story. It’s the first ten minutes of There Will Be Blood stretched to feature length.

Three couples and a young boy cross the Oregon Desert. Their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), is a trapper, a man of the land, and an all around character. But as a supposed two-week journey has drawn out into five weeks, it’s become increasingly clear that Meek may not know where he’s going. The husbands (Will Patton, Neal Huff, Paul Dano) begin to discuss whether or not they should kill Meek, but they decide to give him more time. The wives (Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan) are not included in the conversation. They’re running low on food and water, and it isn’t clear how much longer they can go on. Along the way, they run into a Native American wanderer (Rod Rodreaux), take him captive, and see if he knows the way to water. Emily Tetherow (Williams), the most even-headed of the wives, does not trust Meek and believes their captive is their only chance for salvation.

Greenwood has the showiest role of the bunch: he’s a rough, offbeat, religious man far more at ease than the settlers. Meek fully believes that he’ll get his followers to water and civilization…eventually. He’s a scoundrel, but under other circumstances he might be a very entertaining character to be around. In a voice and diction reminiscent of Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn in last year’s True Grit, Meek’s voice is a guttural growl that somehow manages to be enthusiastic and frequently jovial even when facing grave danger.  Equally impressive is Williams, an actress adept at playing characters who don’t necessarily reveal everything they’re thinking at every moment (as exemplified in Blue Valentine and director Reichardt’s terrific Wendy and Lucy). Tetherow’s contrast with the more outlandish Meek highlights the conflict between the two: Meek is a loud, sloppy frontiersman while Tetherow is controlled and sensible. An early scene in which she throws her family’s rocking chair from their wagon establishes her sense of the world around them: this is a dangerous place, supplies are low, and anything to lessen the load on the animals will help.

But the real star of Meek’s Cutoff is director Kelly Reichardt, whose work has grown increasingly ambitious after Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy yet has managed to stay in her style of neo-realism. Reichardt establishes herself as a master American filmmaker here. Many simple shots of the characters marching across the unforgiving landscape establish the mood and the world without visual pyrotechnics expected from westerns, while scenes of action are drawn out to nearly interminable length, killing the time the characters have left before oblivion.  Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond never weigh their film down with expository narration or dialogue: it is not important that we know what the settlers did before their journey. Their actions speak for themselves. No monologue can serve the story half as well as the simple act of characters braving the harshest conditions.

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