Thursday, April 7, 2011

Kelly Reichardt is back: Michelle Williams & Bruce Greenwood star in MEEK'S CUTOFF

I've only seen three of Kelly Reichardt's five full-length films, but it seems to me that, with each of these last three, her canvas has expan-ded noticeably, while her approach remains decidedly minimalist. This is interesting. From two guys shootin' the shit in Old Joy, to a girl and her dog confronting life and hard times in Wendy and Lucy, and now, in her new film MEEK'S CUTOFF, a small set of pioneers (and their minimal wagon train), some hundred and seventy-three years ago, crossing a parched land, trying to find their way to civilization and water. Yes, this is history -- in the "Western" genre, complete with Cowboy, Indian and Settlers. At this rate, I'll expect to see Ms Reichardt's universe expanding soon to the point where she'll doing the latest Star Trek movie, in a minimal manner, of course.

Meek's Cutoff, however, is unlike most westerns you'll have seen. The filmmaker, shown at left, insists on holding back the camera from many close-ups (if I didn't already know that one of my favorite actors, Bruce Greenwood, played the titular Meek, I'd have remained clueless). She refuses to allow melodrama or even real confrontation (except in one particular moment, which the poster above captures nicely), eschews exposition so that we only slowly piece together the story, and finally offers us just about zero closure. In place of all of the above, Reichardt -- together with her writer/collaborator over these last three movies, Jonathan Raymond --  inserts some interesting ideas, some of which you might call political/philosophical: the misguided trust we place in our leaders, when and how we must finally take our "stand" against them, the power we give to the "other" to both frighten and seduce us, and finally the simple "unknowability" of life ahead.

The movie has a strong feminist slant, though one thankfully not rammed down our throats. Its women characters -- above: Shirley Henderson, left; Zoe Kazan, center; and Michelle Williams, right) are simply more interesting and more seen than its men, who are weak and indecisive followers of Mr. Meek, the only male, other than the boy Jimmy (whose got the energy of youth) to even register. I suppose I ought to include our Indian (Rod Rondeaux, below), but he's clearly more "other" than anything else.

The fellows -- including Paul Dano (below, foreground) who is young and weak; Will Patton, old and weak; and Neal Huff (below, background) sick-unto-death weak -- have a but a single characteristic to distinguish them (this is actually true of the women, as well).

This leaves Meek (anything but weak) to hold the fort, characterization-wise. And Mr. Greenwood, always first-rate, does this -- despite that lack of close-ups and the addition of a large, scruffy beard that conceals him all too well. (The shot below is about as close as the movie gets to his face.)

Between them Reichardt and Raymond, while packing in the ideas, have -- perhaps necessarily, in order to stay true to their minimalist, no-more-exposition-than-would-be-believable framework -- skimped on characterization and the incident that might help create this characterization. Without much detail or even much dialog, the ensemble cast in generally stymied. Meek's Cutoff is a very dry movie, as emotionally remote as Wendy and Lucy was engaging.

In the film's leading role, Ms Williams (above) again proves herself an immensely capable young actress. She is also the film's moral voice, which helps pulls us to her side and keep us as focused on the film as we are.
By now you'll have realized that I am not a huge fan of Meek's Cutoff. Artful (to a fault), it offers a number of wonderfully economic shots of the travelers' travails. The opening -- women fording a river, carrying birdcage and baskets above the water -- is one of the more memorable of these. The movie is also as "real" as any western I've seen; it's just not as interesting. I often had to force my mind back into the movie, which, at 104 minutes, is extremely slow-moving.

On the other hand, a month after viewing, the film is still with me, strongly -- in terms of both the negatives and the positives I felt immediately upon seeing it. Which probably means I should take another look in a few years -- if, that is (hello earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear energy and traveling radiation!), we're still here. Meanwhile, Meek's Cutoff opens this Friday April 8, in New York City at Lincoln Plaza Cinema and Film Forum. Click here for the complete list of the many cities -- with dates and theaters -- where you can find the film in the weeks to come.

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