New York Film Festival: Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff

The New York Film Festival recently concluded its 48th year of operation. It’s certainly one of the stuffier festivals I’ve attended, held in uptown Manhattan at the Lincoln Center and peopled largely by old-money, high-society patrons-of-the-arts types. Being a twentysomething living in Brooklyn and getting by on a Netflix subscription and something like $20,000 a year, I naturally felt a little out-of-place trying to slip past the old ladies with mink stoles and hide the holes in my jeans.

Luckily, though, despite the sometimes-stuffy atmosphere, the NYFF’s programmers had more than the upper crust in mind when laying down this year’s slate of films. Set up as a showcase rather than a competition, a wide range of nationalities, backgrounds, and levels of relative fame were represented in this year’s choices: although the fest’s opening film was The Social Network, its closer was Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, and its centerpiece was the Helen Mirren-starring iteration of The Tempest, the real meat was to be found in the in-between zones.

One of the festival’s featured directors, for example, was Kelly Reichardt, whose Meek’s Cutoff was a decidedly un-mainstream and non-uptight affair. In addition to showing the film twice with a Q&A following each screening with Reichardt and actors Paul Dano, Neal Huff, and Tommy Nelson, the NYFF also included Reichardt in an installment of its series of “HBO Director’s Dialogues”, in which Reichardt sat down for an extended interview with the very knowledgeable critic Melissa Anderson, taking some further audience questions afterward.

The film, Reichardt’s first period piece, follows a group of settlers trekking along the Oregon Trail in 1845. What was surely an original crowd of hundreds at the outset of the expedition has been whittled down to a party of three couples and one child, led by the based-on-a-true-story character of Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). It becomes apparent that although Meek has been entrusted to lead the pioneers across a shortcut (or “cutoff”) through the wilderness into the abundantly rich West Coast, he doesn’t know where he’s going any more than they do. Modern-day political implications slowly surface: as Reichardt put it in one Q&A session, being led into a desert by a man who may not know what he’s doing is a problem American audiences may find uncomfortably familiar. But Reichardt also made it clear, both in her festival interviews and through the work itself, that any possible political reading is secondary to the story and characters immediately at hand. Stephen Meek was, after all, a real person, and the human beings depicted in the film are far too fleshed out to be simple metaphorical stand-ins.

Like in her earlier films, 2006’s Old Joy and 2008’s Wendy and Lucy (both of which were also set in the Pacific Northwest, though in the present day), we are not given any more information than necessary to understand the very specific story Reichardt meticulously frames for us. By the time we meet the travelers, they are already weary from months on the trail, so that the hopefulness and jocularity one might expect to find at the start of such a trip has worn down into monotony, tunnel vision and, quickly, extreme thirst. We never see whether the group finally makes it to their promised land, either: again as with Wendy and Lucy, to borrow a cliché, this is a story about the journey, making the destination irrelevant.

It’s certainly the kind of film which some people will label “boring”, that is to say, slow in pacing and light on narrative thrills. These are often my favorite types of movies, because of the high rate of emotional return a close viewing often yields. It will appeal to those who consider their aesthetic and intellectual tastes somewhat high-minded, but that’s not to say elitist or exclusionary. The story reads like a Cormac McCarthy novel: desolate, sunburnt, slow-boiling, potentially apocalyptic.

Much of the focus of Meek’s Cutoff is thus on the monotony of everyday life for these settlers: the tasks of grinding coffee, whittling logs to replace a broken wagon axel, and firing then painstakingly reloading a shotgun are followed at great length. Significantly, most of these chores are carried out by the womenfolk of the party. The men are off busy making the big decisions in hushed conversations while we are subjected to the ladies’ perspective, only catching snatches of their dialogue when the wind’s blowing just right; the camera much more often rests its gaze on the listener rather than the speaker. Through this focus on repetitious tasks and the perspective of the story resting heavily on the women’s shoulders, Reichardt manages to subvert or add new richness to the Western genre she is ostensibly working within.

In a story light on narrative and heavy on internal conflict, performances are key, and nobody in Meek’s Cutoff disappoints. Michelle Williams, working with Reichardt for her second time, hits all the right note between boredom, desperation and a mounting fierce will. Bruce Greenwood is bombastic and brassy, the kind of showman that could quite believably have both talked a group of settlers into hiring him to lead them across a country and then proven to have nothing beyond his outrageous stories to rely on. Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson and all the other supporting actors did completely serviceable work as well, although the heavy lifting really went to the aforementioned two, along with Rod Rondeaux as a third-act wildcard.

Reichardt was very effective in pulling the most out of each of these performances, leaving space for the camera to linger before and after lines to let them breathe and sink in. Nothing about this story is rushed, which is particularly useful in leaving the audience as restless as the characters with whom we learn to identify in their tedium.

The film’s look is spectacular: production and costume design and cinematography departments (who each got huge applause as credits appeared at the end of this screening) worked together to produce an impeccable job of recreating period details within a each frame’s purposefully controlled mise-en-scene. The film opens on an adorable title screen with an embroidered logo, a lovely design which is featured again in the credits. Outfits are relatively ill-fitting and dirty, matching pointedly non-Hollywood grubby faces and fingernails. The women wear bonnets as constricting to their vision as blinders. Even the aspect ratio tells part of the story: at full-screen rather than wide-screen scope, the potential panoramic beauty of this desert is reigned in, limited so that we, like the characters, can only see what’s directly ahead: the dull, cracked earth they’ve been trodding what seems like forever. The landscape makes the Old Testament readings the characters dig into on rest breaks seem like they could just as easily be news on current events.

And when a Cayuse “Indian” (Rondeaux) is dragged into the mix, the party’s power dynamics are put to the test as the team must learn to navigate the tricky relationship with a threatening classic “Other”: one who also has the potential to lead them to salvation in the form of potable water, if only they can get past their perhaps understandable xenophobia (although the settlers were obviously the aggressors in this regrettable chapter of America’s history, it’s not untrue that the natives were known to deal with them violently, engendering a justifiable fear on both sides) and trust him.

So much of the sympathy of the storytellers lies with the outsiders, whether it be the Native American or the women, particularly Michelle Williams’ Emily Tetherow, who takes on some important and surprising agency by the film’s final act. During the Director’s Dialogue session, Reichardt pointed to a disappointing lack of female auteur voices in filmmaking today, asking rhetorically for a female equivalent to a Noah Baumbach or a Spike Jonze. I’ve been trying to come up with an answer ever since (Nicole Holofcener perhaps?), but her point is well taken: but if we were looking for a female counterpart to Gus Van Sant, I think we may have found her.

This film festival screening was also preceded by the 11-minute short film “Day Trip”, directed by Zoe McIntosh. A nearly dialogue-free vignette about a Maori biker gang member in New Zealand who takes a day trip out of his tough-guy comfort zone was a pleasant palate cleanser, and I look forward to seeing what McIntosh has in store in her future, as well.

RATING 9 / 10