Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
You can tell a lot from a film’s opening credits. Kelly Reichardt’s latest begins with its title embroidered on a piece of material, it’s an enchanting moment that speaks to the rather simple, sweetly homespun story that Reichardt is about to unfold. Best described as a minimalist western, Meek’s Cutoff’s big moments are not gun-wielding standoffs between heroes and villains, but the breaking of an ox-cart axel, the devastating realisation that much needed water is toxic and the passing of food from a white woman to a Native American “Indian”.
Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine) stars as Emily Tetherow, one of a group of settlers crossing The United States of America to the west as many did at the time. Their guide is Meek (an unrecognisable Bruce Greenwood, Mao’s Last Dancer), a man who would much rather use the term “we’re finding our way” before “we’re lost”. With the water supply diminishing and exhaustion setting in, the struggle for power and leadership begins to intensify as they veer off track.
For some, Reichardt’s filmmaking style will be a turnoff with its long static shots and entire scenes playing out sans dialogue or action. Others, however, will find magic in the way she flips the genre on its head to create a moving, elegiac experience. Reichardt has formed a dazzling visual treat. The harsh desert land and the ominous never-ending skies bleeding into one another thanks to cinematographer Chris Blauvelt and his use of the old fashioned Academy aspect ratio, while Victoria Farrell’s costume design is equally important as the thrifty duds made of pink, yellow and green fabrics drift across the dusty Oregon plains. Meanwhile, Jeff Grace’s featherlight score of western plucks and twangs is incorporated into the sound design, perfectly capturing every gust of wind and every snapping twig under the travellers’ feet.
What’s at the heart of Meek’s Cutoff, however, is an examination of today. The film, which was sparsely written by Reichardt’s regular scripter Jonathan Raymond, makes note of the way these white Americans have to pay somebody to guide them across this unfamiliar land, while today white politicians do everything they can to stop Mexican immigrants from doing the same. Equally, it is a damning examination of many western countries and how little many people have changed in regards to the acceptance of people from different races.
Reichardt’s film is – to put it simply – a masterpiece. An expert twisting of Americana traditions and values to tell a story that is as pertinent today as it ever was. Williams yet again commands the screen and Reichardt’s steady hand in this unpredictable and thoroughly uncompromising film is astonishing. Meek’s Cutoff will remain one of the greatest achievements of 2011.
The first collaboration between Reichardt and Michelle Williams was this award-winning tender beauty about a drifter and her dog on their way to Alaska where work is plentiful. Wendy keeps Lucy’s bowls and dried food in her trunk as they drive through Oregon, but when Lucy goes missing Wendy must confront her reasons for escaping and the precarious situation she has found herself in.
Wendy and Lucy will be tough viewing for animal lovers as that bond between owner and pet is so touchingly portrayed by Williams and her canine acting companion. The final scenes will tear your heart out, but perhaps not in the way you expect. Its short runtime befits its boutique story, but the lush visuals of a dying Oregon town are impressive and it’s ultimately a touching experience.
Two men reconnect for a weekend of camping in the forest, get lost, find their destination and then go home. That’s all there is to Reichardt’s breakthrough Old Joy, but it’s far more than that simple plot may imply.
Daniel London and Will Oldham star as Mark and Kurt, friends who have drifted apart for never spoken of, but potentially alluded to, reasons. Kurt still smokes marijuana regularly and frequently goes on holidays to the bush to ‘connect with nature’. Mark, meanwhile, has a wife and child on the way, but still has some of the granola-eater in him still as he practises meditation in the backyard of his house in the city. As they reconnect, their feelings continue to bubble ever to close towards the top, but never quite surfacing. They know more about what each other’s thinking from a look than words, anyway.
Old Joy is a weaker effort than Meek’s Cutoff and Wendy and Lucy, sure, but still a key early step in the career of this impressive filmmaker.
Focus on Kelly Reichardt will screen at ACMI in Melbourne from June 2-19th and will also include her rarely seen debut River of Grass (1993) plus Ode (1999). For more information visit ACMI’s website
Thanks to the lovely people at ACMI we have a double pass to giveaway to the 3pm session of Meek’s Cutoff on Saturday 4th June. To go into the draw email your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org by 1st June. Please remember to put ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ in the title of the email. The double pass can only be used for the specified screening at ACMI Melbourne and is non-transferable.