Friday, May 13, 2011

Meek's Cutoff ***½

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson
Zoe Kazan, Neal Huff, Will Patton, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux

The advent of Cinemascope brought with it bigger visions of where cinema could take audiences, with it came sprawling musical numbers, larger-than-life Hitchcockian nightmares and the magnificence of the Wild West in all its glory.
For what epitomizes widescreen more than the imposing image of the rocky towers of Monument Valley in The Searchers? With this new expanding screen, filmmakers were finally able to encompass the oppressing feeling of liberty that nature added to stories about cowboys, natives and pioneers.
The idea of the United States of America that was exported to worldwide audiences in these films was one of ample opportunity as long as you could withstand its obstacles (whether they were social, emotional, racial etc.)
Soon enough, the Western was subverted across the Atlantic where filmmakers like Sergio Leone grabbed on to the darkest aspects of this cultural and geographical expansion and explored the way the rest of the world perceived America.
Therefore, the first thing we must ask ourselves about Kelly Reichardt's revisionist entry in the genre is: why did she shoot it in 1.37:1 format?
Meek's Cutoff is presented to us, not in the epic landscape format favored by John Ford, but in the boxy Academy format, which instantly takes us to a time when films like Stagecoach were being made.
Perhaps Reichardt's intention was to take us back in time by using earlier cinematic language to contextualize her story about settlers in the 1800s. After all, it's fairly common for memories to be influenced by images we've seen in the movies. This is why some people imagine the past in black & white.
However effective this may be, if this was her purpose, she's not only subjugating the idea that genres should constantly evolve, she's also disregarding audience members who might not detect this with ease, or at all.
Those for whom film format is indistinguishable, will then wonder why the natural landscapes onscreen feel almost claustrophobic despite their grandeur. It is here, where the movie starts working on a psychological level. It is here, where Reichardt's genius surfaces: she is working on different layers, all of which work depending on the eye that beholds them.
Meek's Cutoff is one of those movies that requires extra attention, not because of the complexity of its plot, but precisely because of its languidness.
The entire film is presented to us in the first ten minutes. The setting is the Oregon Trail, the year is 1845. Three families traveling in wagons and carts are being led by explorer Stephen Meek (Greenwood) towards their final destination.
As the film begins we see the settlers go on about their daily lives-on a journey that is-as they wash clothes, cook and then prepare for further travel.
Despite Reichardt's, and cinematographer Chris Blauvelt's, best efforts to highlight-or perhaps contrast-the beauty of these daily rituals, we soon get the feeling that something's not right.
The husbands (Huff, Dano and Patton) and wives (Williams, Kazan and Henderson) discuss matters separately and soon we understand that they seem to be lost.
Meek reassures them that everything is fine but tensions begin to grow as they start running out of water and supplies. Their voyage becomes even more complicated when they capture an Indian.
The group becomes divided as some claim he should be killed before his tribe members find them, while others think he could help them find water.
Here Reichardt explores the dynamics of gender in society as we witness how the wives speak in whispers, fully aware that they have no actual "voice" in the decision making. This becomes especially potent when we realize that the women have ideas that might actually work, as opposed to the men's obvious inefficiency and apparent fear of Meek.
The director isn't one to hide her feminism under nonsensical disguises but unlike filmmakers that stigmatize non-mainstream ideologies, she is able to recreate the need for said currents of thought to appear.
In Meek's Cutoff she channels this with Emily Theterow (Williams), who to the shame of the others decides that the Indian should be treated with respect. Of course, the film's politics aren't Disneyfied and we understand at all times, that Emily's treatment of the Indian depends on what she can get out of him.
What's more, in her defense of this stranger, she challenges Meek and the entire patriarchal structure that has defined their journey seems on the verge of collapse. The film studies the purpose of following traditional structures under anomalous circumstances.
We are left wondering then, if a shift in power during the journey would result in long lasting change, or would thing return to normal once their destination was reached?
The film then is by all means a political work, not only because it challenges our notions about the status quo but because in doing so Reichardt, perhaps unintentionally, recreates time appropriate situations, because Meek's traditionalism and stubbornness can easily be perceived as a parable of the Bush administration , but his calm charm and "coolness" in the face of adversity easily take us to the Obama who only recently seems to have achieved an actual purpose in his presidency (it's a freaky coincidence that like Meek, his sudden decisiveness relied on the seemingly accidental encounter with a feared enemy).
If the film seems to be trying to discuss too much, it's only testament to art's capacity of molding itself to the necessities of those who consume it, for it can be said that a few years ago, the film would've been touted as a liberal pro-immigration essay and fifty years ago it would've been feared for its subversive takes on feminism and segregation.
Meek's Cutoff is transgressive political study, a convention-defying genre film and all in all, an excitingly entertaining film (you must watch it if only to witness the year's most authentic action sequence!) but overall it's an ambitiously ambiguous, but never purposeless, evaluation of American history: how they got there and where they're going.
Because when all is said and done few images of this movie year will remain as potent as that of Michelle Williams fearfully holding on to a rifle, trying to reach a compromise between physical and ideological survival.


Runs Like A Gay said...

I wondered if the unusual ratio choice was to present the limited scope of the three families. There's plenty of unforgiving sky and land below their feet, but ultimately we know nothing about what's ahead of them, just as they do.

Jose said...

Nicely put! The images in this film are so haunting.

Paolo said...

All of it are potent images. Whoever shot this film should work forever and be as ubiquitous as Deakins.

Brittani Burnham said...

Great review! I'm really interested in seeing this. Mostly because of Paul Dano.

El pillo said...

This is by far your best piece of writing. You are awesome and checking out this film ASAP