Meek's Cutoff by Kelly Reichardt, 2010
After the masterworks that are Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, director Kelly Reichardt has become one of my favourite directors working today. Her attention to observation and simplicity give her works a humanistic feel – one driven more by the subtle nuances relationships evoke instead of flashy action scenes.
Reichardt’s newest film, Meek’s Cutoff, screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this month, and after slight debating, I bought a ticket. I knew I had to see the film no matter what, but as a rule I try to see the festival films that may not get a theatrical release in the city. Word on the street is that Meek’s Cutoff will probably not screen in Toronto until 2011, so I decided to break my rule and spend the extra cash to watch the film in Toronto’s new cinema Mecca, the TIFF Lightbox.
Set in the 19th century, Meek’s Cutoff is the story of a group of families traveling the unending plains of the Western United States. Led by the titular Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), the immigrants are walking to a destination where Meek states they will be able to settle and make a better life for themselves. When we first meet our clan, they are wading through a river with their provisions and wagons, three weeks past their promised arrival date. The families struggle to traverse the dusty landscape and to feed themselves and the animals that assist them in their transport.
As each day passes, the more the characters question their leader. Paranoia leads to discussions by the men about Meek possibly being in cahoots with Natives who want these travelers led to their deaths. When a Cayuse man (Rod Rondeaux) is spotted and captured, tables are turned, and the group decides to use the man to lead them to a source of water to quench their thirst and fill their barrels. Meek, untrusting, tries to sway the decision.
Meek’s Cutoff plays out as a series of simple events: the travelers collect wood, sit to eat and pray, set up camp then pack up again. Many of these scenes play out in almost silence, and as a means for simple, documentary-style observation, they are beautiful to look at, but never really add up emotionally. Their journey is one that could be described as hell, but the immigrants’ actions and discussions never really made me feel connected to their plight. Their origins are never discussed and after an hour passes and “nothing happens”, one is left clinging for some sort of drama to appear.
Now the phrase, “nothing happens” can be interpreted in different ways. One may argue, “nothing happens” in both Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy. The characters in those films spend much of their time sitting around and ruminating about their situations. But with her first two features, Reichardt succeeded enormously on the subtlety of her surroundings and the performances. We learned much about Mark and Kurt’s complicated friendship through a small campfire discussion, and really felt for Wendy when she called her family back home and received only a short, unhelpful response. In Meek’s Cutoff, we are distanced from the characters to a point where we never really connect to them. Other than watching these people learning to trust a Native man who is completely alien to them (even this seems a little inconsequential – Michelle Williams’ immigrant wife character, first terrified, appearing all of a sudden willing to approach him) we are offered very little in the way of the human drama we have come to expect from Reichardt’s realist storytelling.
The film has its redeeming qualities in the beautiful cinematography (that many of you are now familiar with as shot in the classic 1.35:1 Academy ratio) and Rod Rondeaux’s solemn, stoic performance. Miscast are Shirley Henderson and Michelle Williams, as two wives in the group. Henderson’s British accent came through during many of her lines and made me wonder if her character was meant to be British. Williams is not particularly bad in her role, but the world-weariness the Oregon landscape called for seemed missing from her performance. She simply didn’t feel like she belonged. Bruce Greenwood’s Meek is simply a caricature, what felt like a cringe-inducing Yosemite Sam impression. The musical score also felt tagged on. It was minimalist and used to minimal effect.
With such beautiful, previous results, I could not help being nervous before viewing Meek’s Cutoff. Reichardt secured herself as a master of observing modern living and relationships that I wondered if a period piece could evoke the same feelings. Upon leaving the theatre, other than feeling thirsty, what came to mind was not necessarily the time and place that mattered, but the content. And in this case, the proverbial water barrel felt half-empty.
2 out of 5