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48th NYFF 2010: Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff

This is not some kind of subjective filmmaking experience like Cloverfield, for Reichardt never calls to attention her use of perspective. There’s no “high concept” here. She only uses the point of view camera work when it serves a purpose, and it’s never one of those shaky handheld situations meant to simulate the character’s eyes.

Kelly Reichardt’s first foray into the Western genre, or period piece of any kind, Meek’s Cutoff, is what Jonathan Rosenbaum defined an Acid Western. This little known sub-genre refers to films like Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Monte Hellman’s Ride in the Whirlwind and The Shooting, Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Clint Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter and Hang ‘Em High, Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, and Don Siegel’s The Beguiled. This doesn’t even reference the Spaghetti Westerns like The Great Silence, Django, and The Big Gundown. Perhaps the most important reference point for Meek’s Cutoff though is Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar.

NYFF 48th 2010 Logo September 24 October 10th

There are many impressive talking points about this film, however the one to single out is the way Reichardt handles perspective. While the film is technically an ensemble piece, the camera spends a disproportionate amount of time on Michelle Williams’ (also star of Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy) Emily Tetherow. In fact, the entire story plays out from Emily’s point of view. The audience is never made privy to any conversations that she could not have heard. There are numerous scenes where Reichardt literally puts us in her point of view, and shows the men talking from a distance, with their dialogue being sometimes overshadowed by wind, squeaking wheels or their horses.

This is not some kind of subjective filmmaking experience like Cloverfield, for Reichardt never calls to attention her use of perspective. There’s no “high concept” here. She only uses the point of view camera work when it serves a purpose, and it’s never one of those shaky handheld situations meant to simulate the character’s eyes. In the previously mentioned scene, Reichardt places the camera where Emily stands to point out that the men are debating a next step without consulting the women. In this case, none of them have any idea what they’re talking about, and even though Emily is the coolest head of the bunch, convention causes them to project their masculinity by taking charge and appropriate action. It’s a remarkable scene that sums up the entire story.

Meek’s Cutoff is the story of a group of American settlers going west, lead by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood in a crazy beard and wig, with quite the bombastic performance, based off of real life Meek’s supposed demeanor), their guide who has no idea what he’s doing. It’s actually based on real characters and events, albeit written with conflicting accounts of unreliable narrators like Meek.

We pick things up about six months since they have split from their much larger group, so now it’s only eight of them, three couples, a child and Meek. The Tetherows, Solomon (Will Patton) and Emily, are the boss couple even though Meek is the guide. They are already weathered at this point. Dirty. Tired. Hungry and thirsty. Low on supplies. Lower on patience. Haunted and hypnotized by the constant squeaking of the wheels on their oxen-driven wagons.

The arc of the film is something rarely seen. It’s not really character or plot based. It’s more an exploration of the scenario, which does not really change from the beginning to end. There is only one major plot development, when the Indian joins their party, then a few small ones like when travel is made more difficult. Smaller plot developments simply serve to allow something to be happening, so that we can see how the characters deal with it, rather than just watching them walk and complain.

None of this is bad. It works very well. The situation devised by Reichardt lets the story explore the limits of sanity, ideas about convention, race, gender and masculinity, trust, culture clashes, and classic Western genre tropes of civilization vs. the wilderness and “civilized” White man vs. “savage” Indians. It also falls into the category of 1970s American films like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Looking For Mr. Goodbar, in that it’s a film that tells us what it’s like to be a woman. In this case, it’s being done as a period piece, but the issues are as relevant today as they were in the 1800s.

This film is larger in its spectrum of production and ideas than any of Reichardt’s previous films. Her last two, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy received endless critical praise, but were seen by just about as many people as Joe Swanberg’s “mumblecore” films, all produced by Anish Savjani. Both Reichardt and Savjani step into a new realm with this one. Reichardt expressed some glee during her press conference that this is the first film she has actually gotten paid on. It sounds ridiculous, but unfortunately true. Perhaps the most important female filmmaker in America makes more money teaching at Bard College two days a week than she does on films that hit many critics year end top ten lists. That’s the crazy industry we’re in though.

Meek’s Cutoff will likely garner more crossover appeal than anything else Reichardt has done before. Michelle Williams is a shoe-in for next year’s Oscars. Chris Blauvelt’s cinematography won’t get him any nominations, but it immediately places him as a big name DP. The entire cast is stellar, apart from Williams, Shirley Henderson is the standout. Reichardt describes her performance quite accurately, pointing out how natural it is. You just do not feel like she’s acting. She just inhabits the part. The expression and lines on her face are so perfect for this character, and you really do not notice that she is performing at all. Paul Dano, another natural casting, and Zoe Kazan deliver as always, giving us the young, innocent couple of the bunch. Will Patton seems to play himself as well, and just does that well. Greenwood is going to polarize viewers though. Some might think he’s too over the top, even though it’s obviously on purpose. At times, he does get too annoying, but overall, it’s a cool caricature.

The ending is ambiguous; everyone’s going to debate whether or not they make it or not. It would seem that the translation of the Indian’s dialogue would tell us, but asking Reichardt about it, she says that he never reveals his intentions. The dialect he speaks in the film is understood by all of eight people in the world though, not including the actor Rod Rondeaux who only spoke it phonetically, so the truth cannot really be verified. It’s not important though, because this film is not about whether or not they make it. As the cliché goes, it’s about the journey. The journey tells us more than enough about these characters and the time, so few are going to worry too much about the ending, which I won’t reveal more of, but is a classic ending.

Look for it from Oscilloscope Pictures next Spring, at which point we’ll have a video interview with Reichardt.

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