Director Kelly Reichardt has said in the past that she sees lack of economic means as a blessing in disguise, because it often leads to the way of unorthodox creative choices. All of her movies seem to be marked by their “indie-ness”; they wear their modest budgets like a badge of honor and more often than not rely on this too much to purposefully bypass actual cinematic coherence. Her Wendy and Lucy for example, dangles on a border so thin, that it can end up looking like a modern neorrealist masterpiece or manipulative poverty porn. However, with that said and even if her movies don’t have any sort of commercial appeal, she must be one of the most exciting American auteurs: all of her works can spark conversation.
Her crowning piece might be Meek’s Cutoff, a revisionist Western that’s as as we can get to finding a true American movie masterpiece in 2011. Combining untold history, pioneer myths and an incisive political discourse, the film excels at giving you just enough material to discuss and think about for days.
The minimalist—almost nonexistent plot—takes place in the open spaces of the Oregon High Desert, where a group of settlers, led by explorer Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), travel the vast landscape. Meek has promised them a shortcut to the West, but fails to deliver as the two week journey stretches into more than a month. The travelers begin to worry as water and food supplies begin to run low.
Of course, all of this storytelling happens over the space of an hour, Reichardt’s film has absolutely no regard for “scenes” as we’re used to. She goes for Terrence Malick-inspired sequences in which characters seem to become one with nature. Reichardt fixes her camera on aesthetically pleasing elements that often have us wonder if she’s inviting us to look at something beyond the symmetry and gorgeousness of the light her cinematographer Chris Blauvelt captured.
The first half of the story is more about observing than about any actual plot developments. When the film opens, we see the settlers going on and about their daily routines. The women explore the fields, the men collect water. Since the film is so silent and the camera is so fixated on the entire situation, sometimes it feels like we’re watching a documentary; all it’s missing is a deep voiced narrator.
It might take more than one viewing to realize that Reichard is pointing out the way in which tasks are distributed by gender—tasks that go beyond physical chores, for it’s also clear that it’s only the men who have a right to be heard. We see a man carving the word “lost” on a tree bark, while the women only whisper about their situation, afraid their husbands will hear. Suddenly there’s an irruption that makes their tiny world shake to its core. Meek captures a lonesome Cayuse Indian (a superb Rod Rondeaux) in order to have him find water.
The power dynamics between the settlers begin to change as one of the women (Michelle Williams) begins to question Meek’s authority, the husbands’ passivity and worst of all, she is kind to the Indian. Fear not, the movie doesn’t become a forbidden romance, if anything it becomes even more cryptic as it leads towards an even more ambiguous conclusion.
Meek’s Cutoff succeeds on countless levels, most notably in its genre-bending habiliites. Reichardt takes the Western and subverts what made it such an iconic American genre; not only does she center the attention towards gender (we wonder if the settlers will be different once they arrive at their destination), she also forces us to look at things from a different, quite literal, perspective. The movie is shot not in the stunning grandiosity of 16:9, but in claustrophobic square format. This way it always seems that the landscape will crush the characters. By removing the majesty out of the genre, the director challenges our notions of what the Western genre should be all about.
This effect is aided in this Blu-ray edition, because the movie seems more urgent with the clarity of high definition. The colors, the textures and Reichardt’s ingenious framing make for a truly unique experience. The transfer might be the most extraordinary feature in this release, given that the other supplements just include a making-of documentary that does nothing to inform us of the stories behind the production.
It’s a shame, considering that Meek’s Cutoff works so well precisely because things didn’t go too well behind the scenes. The ending for example, might frustrate those who look at it as a director’s whim, but it was in fact a product of the film’s low budget. Reichardt had to improvise after she realized they wouldn’t be able to shoot what she’d originally intended.
As it is though, the finalé is a wondrous piece of intellectual teasing. It’s the perfect conclusion for the film that, so far, has best captured the aimlessness of the Obama administration, the inadequacy of its foreign policies and the endless consequences of xenophobia. Now how’s that for a new American classic?