Sunday, April 17, 2011
The characters of Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff are quietly marching to their doom. There isn't very much left to say. A small wagon train has found itself lost on its westward journey, and in the film's dialogue free opening sequence, we see them leave behind a water source uncertain when, or if, they will find another. The grizzled guide, the Meek of the title, will not admit that they are lost and he marches them on, maintaining his authority through a mix of bravado and eccentricity. The pioneers don't challenge him because, for the time being, his false confidence trumps their honest helplessness, and, after all, his leadership is probably just as good as the random direction they would end up choosing.
That opening sequence is just about perfect in the way it lays out the situation and settles you into the film's rhythms. In a broad sense, Meek's Cutoff is similiar to Boyle's 127 Hours in the way it shows a desperate situation with few moves left to play, a situation where the tenacity of the character(s) is as crucial as the decisions made. But tonally the films are polar opposites. Where Boyle ratcheted up the suspense, hammering the viewer with every cinematic trick he could muster, Reichardt goes in the opposite direction. She strips down the material, diffusing the tension in favor of the dreamlike state of being hopelessly lost with no prospect of rescue to cling to.
Which is not to say the film is plotless. There is a very complex story, only it is the hidden in plain view variety. The kind of simmering-under-the-surface conflict that mass audiences have no patience for. As the days of desperate wandering wear on into weeks and it becomes painfully clear that their guide is lost as any of them, we gradually understand that only person with the fortitude to stand up to Meek is Emily, an unimposing woman played with quiet steeliness by Michelle Williams. If this was an 80 million production opening on 2500 screens the ads would bellow, "In a time when women had no voice, one woman will speak." But Reichardt isn't interested in spoon-feeding the audience so blatantly.
Reichardt is especially good at showing how the delineations of social status hold up even in this small band of survivors separated from society. She uses staging, editing, and sound design to show the subtle shifts in power taking place. When the men discuss strategy the women mill about on the edge of earshot trying to catch snippets of conversation. As desperation increases the boundaries break down. When there is a dispute over how to deal with an Indian who might be able to lead them to fresh water, the question of leadership reaches a breaking point and without fanfare or dramatic underlining we watch as Emily mounts a challenge to Meek's authority.
When the conflict is presented with such subtlety much depends on the actor's ability to do a lot of the heavy lifting. The ensemble cast that includes Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan, rises to the occasion. Michelle Williams is excellent at using her level gaze to stare right through Meek in a way that makes it clear to both how completely she is on to him. This is her second fantastic lead performance for Reichardt, following her heart-rending work in Wendy and Lucy. The actor-director pairings is proving to be one of the most fruitful currently going. Will Patton also deserves special mention in the crucial role of Emily's husband. He is only newly married and his wife's actions are as mysterious to him as their guides. Like the audience, he is constantly sizing up the situation and the main players involved, trying to maneuver the group to the best odds of survival.
Having said that, this film really belongs to Bruce Greenwood as Meek. It must have been tempting to go over-the-top with the character with his wild appearance and messianic proclamations, to turn him into a kind of Daniel Plainview of the Oregon Trail. Reichardt and Greenwood smartly keep him down-to-Earth, and his plausibility serves the story well. If he had been a charismatic, larger than life figure it would have made more sense for everyone to follow him. His obvious small-scale flaws makes everything that much more urgent: For the love is God is anyone going to stand up to this guy before everyone dies of thirst?
Greenwood has been delivering quality work for years, playing everything from Kennedy in Thirteen Days to Cate Blanchett's foil in I'm Not There to his recent high-profile gig as Captain Pike in the Star Trek reboot. This performance should cement his place on top of the casting lists of major filmmakers.
Love the film or hate it, the ending is sure to be maddening. It is that way by design. While merely presenting an ambiguous ending doesn't automatically equal deep meaning, thinking back on the film it's clear that Reichardt made a strong choice. Reichardt takes two hours to distill the story down to its purest essence and having accomplished that she draws the curtain. Unlike the bewildered Meek, Reichardt knows exactly where she's going. If, in the final tally, Meek's Cutoff is a few degrees shy of a masterpiece, Reichardt doesn't seem to know it. She progresses from shot to shot with the supreme confidence of a master at the end of a long career who has stripped away all flourishes, leaving only the essentials.
Verdict: Meek's Cutoff is an original and powerful film and it places Reichardt at the forefront of directors working today. It brings to life the pioneer experience more tangibly than any film that comes to memory. It should be sought out by anyone looking for a film that will be worth pondering for days after viewing. Reichardt doesn't lean on the allegorical aspects of the film too hard but one should not be surprised to find themselves thinking back to this desperate band of travelers and their deficient leader when confronted with recent world events. 8 out of 10