April 5, 2011

New Joy

by Vadim Rizov

Meek's Cutoff

Meek's Cutoff is, relatively speaking, director Kelly Reichardt working in maximalist mode. There are multiple easily-recognizable actors, as well as an active score by Jeff Grace (who has mostly worked on indie horror movies like The House of the Devil), enveloping ambient sound (courtesy of Gus Van Sant's regular sound designer Leslie Shatz), and a plot that can be broken down to three acts. Reichardt's two previous features, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, both clock in at under 80 minutes (the latter has a deliberately slow credits crawl to stretch it out to feature length); Meek's Cutoff is a hearty 104 minutes. Accessibility-wise, all this puts it way ahead of Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and Reichardt's debut River of Grass. The setting (the Oregon Trail!) and time period (1845) are instantly arresting and Different, the level of ambition on every tier overtly higher, an odyssey rather than a sketch.

Meek's Cutoff

The central dramatic question: is trail guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) reliable or leading everyone to an early, water-free death in Indian country? Meek's Cutoff aligns itself with the traditional Western, sort of ("I love the way those films are sort of styled and shot, and the use of landscape," Reichardt noted at the Venice Film Festival, "but a lot of the themes are completely unrelatable to me"), but it's also very much for people who can prioritize—and hang with—stunning compositions over all else. Shot in 1.37, the square Academy aspect ratio conjures up both the old-fashioned, non-revisionist Westerns that Reichardt is homaging/critiquing and the newest in hardcore arthouse filmmaking, in which directors use an aspect ratio many theaters no longer have the right lens to project. Like There Will Be Blood, there's no dialogue for the first 15 or so minutes: unlike P.T. Anderson's film, there aren't any dynamite explosions to immediately demand your attention. So if you can't reconcile that persistent shots of wagon trains in motion can be as hypnotic as the actual story, flee now.

The wagons move against a landscape that seems infinitely expansive in every direction. At night, camped out, the darkness is pervasive in a way that puts you into the same hushed, fearful mode as the travelers. It's not the same thing at all, but recall the ambient all-encompassing night IMAX landscapes of Tron: Legacy. Now imagine them rendered naturally, in a real landscape, with nothing serving as a buffer. It's scary out there; the sound design and score are equally spooked.

Meek's Cutoff

Like Gerry, Meek's Cutoff respects the idea of nature as a savage environment whose neutral mode is overt hostility. The plains, skies and mirages are all dazzling. Tension erupts between trail guide Meek and a Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) whom the wagon train "captures" and wonders what to do with. Anyone familiar with Reichardt's oft-unsubtle liberal talking points will be unsurprised to realize the Cayuse isn't about to slaughter them all. He doesn't even get subtitles, the better to hammer home the point about how the fearful travelers can't be bothered to have someone with them who respects the locals enough to speak their language—and we've now lost the Cayute language entirely. (Rondeaux speaks in the film in Nez Pierce, itself known to about 100 people, its long-term survival status in doubt.)

The allegorical connotations of an American posse moving through unfriendly terrain for which they have neither the language nor resources to navigate successfully are too evident to further flesh out, as is Reichardt's treatment of the Native American. It's difficult, if you're liberally inclined, to argue much with the broad strokes of the filmmaker's politics. It is, however, possible to retroactively wish that Wendy and Lucy didn't feature a blond, all-American youth sporting a crucifix as the grocery store fascist who busts destitute Michelle Williams for stealing vegetables, or that a long, unbroken excerpt from Air America provides part of Old Joy's ambient soundtrack.

Meek's Cutoff

In that light, what's really exciting about Meek's Cutoff in the context of Reichardt's work is that, by virtue of time and place, none of those contemporary nods to right-on politics can make it in. Meek's is politicized, though not in ways that seem particularly "thought-provoking" (the thoughts it provokes are crystal clear, as is the case with that adjective). But the film is breathtaking visually while confined to the vocabulary and concerns of 1845. It also has one of the tensest set-pieces of the year, where the group tries to get two wagons down a high-grade slope without smashing all of their water and supplies to smithereens.

All the usual period trappings—the fixing of busted wheels, the fireside preparation of meals—are conveyed with a level of detail that gives these Western tropes new life, or perhaps their first accurate onscreen rendering. The hushed air and tangible sense of a difficult production struggling almost as much as its characters saves the film from any kind of Colonial Williamsburg sense of watching contemporary actors struggle to act "period." Meek's looks great, but it also respects the mythological intensity of the Western form, even as it corrects the historical record.

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Posted by ahillis at April 5, 2011 1:59 PM