Thursday, April 28, 2011

Meek's Cutoff

The Meek in the title refers to Stephen Meek (played with a sketchy beard by Bruce Greenwood) who imposes himself as the leader of a group of families across the Oregon Trial circa 1845.  But it could also refer the film itself, a quiet and meandering independent confection, directed by Kelly Reichardt, and written by Jonathon Raymond.  Both of which collaborated on Old Joy (2006) and Wendy & Lucy (2008), quiet slices of life from the perspectives of which one would never think of as cinematic.  And yet, the quiet, novelistic reveries of both those films, as well as Meek's Cutoff in their own not insignificant ways recall a hopeful and refreshing to the almost dormant aesthetic of American independent cinema.  While Wendy & Lucy was a small slice of life feature about a runaway and her dog, Meek's Cutoff, is bigger in scope, but, if possible, even more taciturn and ponderously paced.  To some it will come across majestic, to others it will be like watching paint dry, and the marvelous thing about it is, that it appears to have been made as wished, without compromise, or notes, and without a care in the world of being commercial...good thing, considering it's middling box office numbers.

What this is an unassuming slice of life western detailing the lives of three families, Mr. Meek, and the Indian who is captured along the way.  We see lots of hiking, pitching tents, scrambling for water.  We get an up close look at a group of characters lost and stranded.  And yet so many allusions can be made from this potentially (and probably) doomed voyage: the whole nation of Manifest Destiny comes across right in the faces of the dirt-stained actors, it appears even the bonnets worn by the female characters have their own story.  Reichardt and Raymond are never explicit about anything, but there's so much atmosphere, and so much detail in the wagons themselves, the women darning clothes, the secret conversations between the men and the quiet gossip between the women.  It feels almost too-lived in, almost invasive as we, the audience, walks along for nearly two hours with this troupe.  They include young man and wife Thomas and Millie (played by Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan), married couple William and Glory (Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson) who are expecting their second child, Solomon (Will Patton) and his young wife Emily (Michelle Williams.)

To say there would be no movie without Michelle Williams would be an understatement-- she is through and through the soul of the film, and I'm sure the main reason how this visually breathtaking film got financed in the first place.  With every gesture, quiet line reading, or long tracking shots of simply her walking, she firmly reminds how striking an actress she is, and like in Blue Valentine, or Brokeback Mountain, or Wendy & Lucy, appears so strong, despite on the surface playing such fragility.  With only two films together, Williams and Reichardt appears symbiotic in their cinematic approach, and she's almost an embodiment of the west itself, as well as laying on a lovely feminist subtext with every glance.  B

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