Oct 10, 2010

LFF 2010 review: Meek's Cutoff [15]

Dir: Kelly Reichardt
I've not seen any of Kelly Reichardt's work before, but her first two films are now near the top of my to see list.

While Reichardt’s previous films are, apparently, essentially plotless, Meek's Cutoff does have a distinct narrative through line. Set in Wyoming in 1845, the film picks up three married couples (Michelle Williams and Will Patton, Paul Dano and  Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson and Neal Huff) and the guide (the titular Meek, played by Bruce Greenwood, unrecognisable under some pretty spectacular facial hair) who, it seems, has got them lost, some weeks into their crossing of the continent, following many others to the West. Water soon becomes an issue, but the men capture a Native American (Rod Rondeux), and try to coerce him into leading the party to the nearest source of water. But can they trust him?

What’s most interesting about the way Reichardt tells this tense story is how far in the background she allows the narrative to play. This film is at least as much about the landscape in which it plays, and the unspoken things between its characters as it is about the lack of water and the threat of Indian attack. Images mean more than anything here, and everything else has to make way. At first glance characterisation is thin, advanced through short, incidental, conversations and small, but telling, events. Only Michelle Williams’ Emily Tetherow is really fully developed, but, while I’d usually be complaining about these characters not being three dimensional, it doesn’t keep Meek's Cutoff from being a great film. That’s because the people aren’t really the main characters; the landscape is, and Reichardt’s camera knows it.

The photography is undoubtedly the star of this film. Despite working with what appears to be entirely natural light, Chris Blauvelt works wonders on his first feature as cinematographer. In the daylight he and Reichardt emphasise the parched expanse of the desert, which seems to recede into forever, and at night we have beautifully composed shots of characters in silhouette, or illuminated by lamp and firelight. From a visual standpoint some critics have compared Meek's Cutoff to the work of David Lean, for me it harks back to the best of Terence Malick and especially to Days of Heaven. The Malick comparison also seems apposite because dialogue is sparse, but when it comes there is great weight to every word.

Though the characters are essentially left skeletal by the script (Kazan is na├»ve and nervous, Henderson and Huff extremely religious, etc) the performances add meat to those bones. Williams has the most to do, and her trusting but steely Emily is the heart (and indeed the conscience) of the film. In one of the films finest, and most unbearably tense, scenes she initiates a Mexican standoff when Meek threatens to kill the Indian. Meek is the other central figure and Bruce Greenwood, whose laidback attitude always seems to have threat behind it on this role, makes him utterly compelling whether it’s as part of that standoff or simply telling one of the children in the party a story. His weather beaten look and his voice tell as much about the character as any of the dialogue.

The rest of the cast has less to do, but is solid nevertheless thanks to Reichardt’s casting of some gifted character actors both established and up and coming. Though underutilised, Shirley Henderson is as quietly effective as ever as the most basically stoical of the wives and Will Patton is an especially strong presence as Williams’ much older husband. As the younger couple Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan continue to demonstrate that they are willing to make unexpected career choices and to stretch their acting muscles much more than some of their contemporaries. It’s Dano who comes off best, often playing the mediating voice among the men.

Some will hate Meek's Cutoff, because very little really happens (there really only two big dramatic events in the whole film, both well into its second hour) and it sends us out on a note that wraps nothing up. I loved its lyricism, its visual beauty, its patient pacing and its unwillingness to spoonfeed us. I was glad too for the inconclusive ending, largely because I was grateful that nobody had forced a completely inappropriate happy ending on Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond. Instead what we get is a haunting uncertainty, which is perfect for the film. If you don’t mind your films slow, if you don’t mind thrills tense rather than pulse pounding, I really can’t recommend Meek's Cutoff highly enough, and whatever else you get or fail to get out of it, you’ll be hard pressed to deny that this is one of 2010’s most beautiful films.

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