DIR: Kelly Reichardt • WRI: Jonathan Raymond • PRO: Elizabeth Cuthrell, Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani, David Urrutia • DOP: Chris Blauvelt • ED: Kelly Reichardt • DES: David Doernberg • Cast: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton
‘Who knows what’s over that hill? Could be water, could be an army of heathens…blood or water’ – the words of Stephen Meek, a hardened pioneer of the Western front, whose name is more than a slight contradiction of character. The year is 1845 and Meek is the guide for members of three families who have left the settlements on the thriving Eastern Seaboard of America and are now undertaking the last leg of their long journey, through Oregon desert. Although they are at the brink of their destination – the uncertainty of their route, the need for food and water, and more than anything the threat of Indigenous tribes – is deeply felt.
Kelly Reichardt has been an intriguing presence on the independent scene for several years now – while sparse and, her previous films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy felt very unique, rich in atmosphere and subtext. This one, shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio – this is clearly not about gorgeous panoramic Western vistas, but an arid environment and sense of isolation, constriction and fear that the characters can’t escape. The cinematography is enveloping – every image and sound has clarity of intent and authenticity that’s impressive, but not mechanical, there’s a level of artistry here that’s seamless.
Reichardt has done a remarkable job. The way in which we first encounter this group has an almost voyeuristic dimension. We observe them bringing their belongings across the river, cages and basket across, a woman pregnant. The classic wagon vehicle. We see the necessity they feel to wade through and continue on their journey no matter what. Reichardt’s not interested in fulfilling the conventions of the genre or even screenwriting at large – nothing is indicated, nothing is too obvious – and the decisions she makes in terms structure and thematic elements are felt on a subliminal level, right up until the final shot. By defying expectations of the genre and her film becomes all the more engrossing.
This is quite a simple story about people with simple customs and practical needs – driven by a need to fulfil their ‘Manifest Destiny’ – the inherent right they feel to colonise this new land. Setting off on the journey, Meek himself tries to enforce his high status, telling the youngsters cautionary tales of bears and brutes and emitting a seemingly affable macho persona. For the rest of the group, there is a sense of communal obligation and not too much time for soul-searching or camaraderie. Reichardt does not draw attention to anything – whether it be the name actors she has playing these very pared down roles or the multitude of themes and messages running beneath the surface.
Among the eclectic ensemble of actors in the film is Michelle Williams, Reichardt’s muse previously on Wendy and Lucy – who continues to go from strength to strength in proving her versatility and conviction as an actress. Here she plays Emily Tethero – a young mother on this trek, and eventual moral compass for the audience. She’s invisible in the role – in the best sense; there is no big announcement or introductory close-up of her arrival on screen as ‘Two-Time Academy Award®-nominee Michelle Williams’, now playing dress-up in the desert – the blatant heroine of the piece. No, Reichardt is smart and knows how to treat the audience with intelligence, she does not indicate anything. However, as the narrative unfolds, Emily’s increasing speculation over their route, her concerns about water and private ideas of gender roles makes her an adversary for Meek.
These tensions come to a head however when they encounter a Native American Indian. From the moment this happens – Williams’ character immediately decides to take very practical action to the threat. But soon enough this Cherokee man becomes a possession for the group, an entity they fear so intensely yet cannot let go of – they interrogate him to find out the route, to know of any more like him who may attempt to destroy. The fear of the Other is palpable and the ultimate intent of the film is revealed.
However, Emily Tethero is the one who listens to him – she hears him praying despite not understanding his words, she also repairs his shoe. She begins to become more lenient with him, despite her upbringing and societal beliefs. As the group’s situation begins to become more desperate – these various gestures and allowances enrage Meek – with a turbulent dynamic beginning to form and some consequence and yet it never descends into hysterics.
If the job of the artist is to deepen the mystery – then Kelly Reichardt has succeeded. By the end of this film there are no clear answers. There is no sense of the world being set to rights by this story, the film does not presume that what it is has to say about race relations (still relevant in 2011 and beyond) is closing the book on the topic, not for the characters, nor the audience. The film is not about these people’s ultimate destination because the sense of closure and satisfaction felt at the end of most movies is an illusion – an entertaining one, which we can suspend our disbelief to enjoy, but an illusion nonetheless. Here that kind of compromise is not necessary, and to witness this on screen is like a window into the past.
Meek’s Cutoff is a near-masterpiece, go see it while you can.
IFCO website for details)
Meek’s Cutoff is released on 15th April 2011