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Of a Time, Yet Timeless: 'Meek's Cutoff"

In the first film of the new year that is not to be missed, Kelly Reichardt achieves the transcendence of silent Victor Sjostrom and Terrence Malick circa Days of Heaven.

Meek's Cutoff

Distributor: Oscilloscope Pictures
Cast: Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Shirley Henderson
Durector: Kelly Reichardt
US Release Date: 2011-04-08

It is with tremendous excitement that I report Kelly Reichardt’s newest film Meek’s Cutoff is one of those modern rarities that can actually be called visionary in execution. From the first frame that features the handmade, quilt-like opening title card to the final riveting exchanging of glances between two main characters, every single moment of Meek’s Cutoff is thoughtful and nuanced.

Indeed, this challenging film excels in every sense, mainly thanks to Reichardt’s meticulous, artistic eye. The director’s purposeful use of space and themes, her command of the sparsely-populated mis en scéne, and her immaculate eye for editing add up to a meticulously-constructed piece of art.The director's last feature, Wendy and Lucy, is an impressive, near-perfect movie, but this newest venture is simply brave. Meek’s Cutoff is Reichardt stepping up her game in every sense and it is thrilling to watch.

The silent first sequence tells the viewer everything they need to know without beating anyone over the head with obviousness or regurgitating the too-familiar Western/pioneer imagery from this period. The director wisely tweaks the images and allows them tell the story from the outset: we are transported to the Oregon desert in 1845 and covered wagons are pulled across a waist-deep river; stark, natural tall grasses sway gently while the camera moves in slow, deliberate, steady pans. Women in bonnets and plain homespun muslin dresses look like cocooned moths waiting to explode from their oppressive chrysalises. The tone is beautifully set by the director as she tells the story of guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) taking three families across this treacherous terrain, claiming he knows a short cut, when in reality it seems like he is lost.

All of the actors are perfectly cast, aided by the costumes. The aforementioned bonnets that frame the faces of the women allow for mystery, as though they are hiding something. Williams channels Lillian Gish, both in Victor Sjostrom’s The Wind and Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter. Her weather-beaten countenance recalls Gish’s silent agony, while her expert handling of a shotgun recalls the righteous, protective and pragmatic Gish years later. Williams is fast becoming one of my favorite actresses of her generation, possessed of the qualities of a young Jessica Lange or Sissy Spacek. As Emily, she is revelatory; hard, cunning and strong. It was a smart decision to hold this film until 2011 so as not to put Williams in competition with her own work in the stunning Blue Valentine, for which she was justly nominated for Best Actress at the 2010 Oscars.

The women in the party do most of the grunt work and are keen observers. Yet, they have no formal power in a gender-biased system where the men can lead them in any direction they’d like. This is a very interesting, unique look at how power was exchanged between the sexes during this period, and how the vicious gender politics at this point in American history were slowly being chipped away at, in many cases for the first time.

When the dialogue and score come in to replace the natural sounds, they are used with perfect economy. Reichardt’s sense of this material couldn’t be any more commanding and her use of diegetic and non-diegtic sound is masterful. Her use of light – starlight, firelight, burning natural sunsets – is also miraculous when in concert with the colors of the landscape: amber, indigo, sage and rich earth are the prevailing hues in the palette.

Steeped in ritual, the ritual of marching, of making fires before sunrise, of being supremely regimented in every way, Meek’s Cutoff hits a stride when a Native American prisoner joins the party and the pioneers must face the lies that have been propagated about these mysterious people. When Meek’s Cutoff unexpectedly becomes a film about racism, it soars. It begs the question, “Are non-white Americans treated that much better today?” Indeed, what has changed?

Ultimately, race is but one component of an extremely complex, yet not at all fussy meditation on trust and intimacy in times of catastrophe, which make it completely relevant in this day and age, when “community” is but a buzzword for “groupthink” and people are still going through brutal struggles to find their way in a desperate time in American history. Reichardt’s brilliance illuminates all of these topics in spades.

Meek's Cutoff is now playing in limited release. Do not miss this film during it's theatrical run!


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