August 1, 2011
Romanticised and Sanitised, John Ford’s vision of the old west has been gunned down repeatedly since the ’50s (even by Ford himself) but never with the patience, silence and exactitude exhibited by Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff.
In place of galloping steeds, bar brawls and gunshots we get the kneading of dough, the gathering of water and the mending of wagon wheels; retina-scorching Vistavision landscapes give way to parched, inhospitable terrain shot in the square 1.33:1 aspect ratio; and any ideas of (male) heroism and the plucky pioneer spirit are trampled underfoot by soft decision-making and a suffocating atmosphere of desolation and terror.
Joining the action midstream, literally, as hirsute mountain man Meek (Bruce Greenwood) leads three settler couples across a chest-high river, Reichardt unhurriedly R establishes that our ‘heroes’ are lost.
Led off the Oregon Trail by Meek, the men refuse to call him on his blunder as surely as he refuses to acknowledge it.
The women, meanwhile, are left to observe the futile pow-wows from a distance (with the camera, tellingly, positioned alongside them), though Michelle Williams’ Emily Tetherow has more brains and rectitude than the lot of them. Then the party captures a Cayuse Indian and threatens to tear asunder when no one can agree whether to entrust him to lead the way or kill him on the spot…
Based on a true story gleaned from (female) diary entries, Meek’s Cutoff is another of Reichardt’s understated odes to harsh American landscapes peopled by marginalised characters (played by Paul Dano, Will Patton and Shirley Henderson, among others). Like Old Joy and Wendy And Lucy, it’s an intimate tale with wider implications, though the biblical and political allegories are pleasingly finespun.
Never one to spoon-feed, Reichardt has a similarly low-key approach to lighting, dialogue and performance – campfire scenes drape the protagonists in near-total darkness, words are sparingly offered and always mumbled (advice: put on the subtitles!) and Williams delivers a subtle turn from beneath a dusty bonnet.
This restraint extends to the electro score, so stripped down it never jars with the primal scenery; the ambient hums and soft whistles sound like wind scraping dust from the cracks of the Great Basin or travelling through a mountain pass. And then there’s the open-ended final shot, sure to madden some but really the only way Cutoff could ever ‘conclude’.
Reichardt’s rigorous, enigmatic western invites discussion and debate, so it’s infuriating that the disc offers just nine minutes of B-roll footage: wordless images revealing the small cast and crew to be unfussy and professional.