We ARE here for your entertainment! Film review no.2

Film Review Series by Lance Sinclair.

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This week State Library of Queensland’s cinephile, Lance Sinclair, reviews Meek’s Cutoff, a reinterpretation of the American western film directed by Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) 2008.

Based on historical records and diaries, the film follows the difficult journey of the pioneers who travelled the road that branched off the Oregon Trail, named after Stephen Meek, who was hired to lead the first wagon train to Willamette Valley.  Filmed in the traditional Western screen ratio, this period film reunites Reichardt with writer Jon Raymond who collaborated on Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, also set in Oregon and both adapted from Raymond’s short stories.

Meek’s Cutoff reteams Michelle Williams and Will Patton (Wendy and Lucy) and includes Bruce Greenwood as 'Meek', Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, and Shirley Henderson. It premiered at the 2010 Venice Film Festival and is Reichardt’s first 35mm film with a seven-figure budget. It is considered the directors break through film. 

Image from film Meek's Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt, produced by Elizabeth Cuthrell, streamed on Kanopy database

MEEK’S CUTOFF

The year is 1845, and we find ourselves watching the tribulations of a small convoy of settlers, travelling across the barren plains of the Oregon High Desert, under the care and guidance of self-professed living legend Stephen Meek (played with knowing vanity by Bruce Greenwood). Based on actual events, we watch an already difficult journey decline, piece by piece, into a shuffling parade of despair. Five weeks into what was supposed to be a two-week trek, with dwindling water supplies and coaches crumbling under the stress of their environment, pilgrim Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) starts to realise that control and bravado will not be the saving grace for a seemingly doomed party.

This is a story that, while based around growing tension, also asks us to luxuriate in the strange, empty world it creates for us. It’s a movie that asks us to pause and take small looks into the lives of strangers as they bond through shared burdens, and to appreciate the tiny victories of empathy and connection. In that sense, it is a very unusual tale of the Old West.

In Reichardt’s follow up to this film, 2013’s Night Moves, she would take the basic concepts of Film Noir (clandestine crime, moral degradation, and the dangers of passion) and strip them of the narrative comfort zones they usually dwell in. What that film leaves us with is the harrowing, inevitable tragedy that slowly wraps its claws around our doomed protagonists. It makes for a fine companion piece to Meek’s Cutoff, and how this movie approaches The Western, one of the most enduring branches of cinema.

Even supposedly “revisionist” westerns, such as The Proposition, Unforgiven and the more recent Bone Tomahawk who set out to update the genre and grapple with its legacy of violence, remain tethered to the tropes and lynchpins that seem baked into the genre: the taming of the land and its inhabitants through masculine violence.  Meek’s Cutoff avoids this concept by simply sucking the air out of it – here there is no taming to be done, and human will holds no power. In Meek’s Cutoff we’re in something close to an endless petri dish, and our players scuttle across its surface like insects in an alien landscape. There’s nothing to fight against and the hand of fate will have its way. Of course, Meek will try as he terrorises the lone Native American scout taken captive by his raggedy crew, and repeats his stories of past glories to ever diminishing returns, until even this vicious egotist must face the truth.

Like all Reichardt’s movies, it’s a film that quietly hums with the drama of its scenario. It builds as we spend time looking into the lives of Meek’s troupe, and it’s there that the always excellent (and slightly underappreciated in my opinion) Michelle Williams slowly begins to shine as Emily Tetherow, cast adrift from any sense of normalcy, and her evolution from witness to the brutal hardships this seemingly malicious land throws at her kin, to eventual participant and something resembling a leader for this ever diminishing circle of desperate souls.  Williams is an actor whose ability to inhabit complex, difficult characters without being overly showy about it has elevated films like Manchester By The Sea and Blue Valentine far beyond what they could have been, and as the heart and moral centre of Meek’s Cutoff she is like a blessed oasis in a hopeless plain of despair.

This is a masterful western. One that opens new ground for what these stories can do, that embraces silence and rumination where so many of its peers veer into the seeming inevitability of conflict, and one that echoes with the viewer long after it’s players have left the screen for a future as uncertain as their present.

Further reading

  • Highway to Hell? Images of the American Road in Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and Meek's Cutoff / Hester, Diarmuid. Journal of American Studies; Cambridge Vol. 52, 3  (Aug 2018): 810-827 (article)
  • Thinking at Lightspeed: The Flickering Transformations of Kelly Reichardt's Cinema / Michelitch, Jason. Cineaste; New York Vol. 42, 1,  (Winter 2016): 4-8,53 (article)
  • The Quiet Menace of Kelly Reichardt’s Feminist Westerns / Gregory, Alice. New York Times (Online), New York: New York Times Company. Oct 14, 2016 (article)
  • Meek's Cutoff / Anonymous. Wild West; Leesburg Vol. 24, 5,  (Feb 2012): 78 (article)

Join Lance on Tuesday 21 April at 2pm for a Q&A session on State Library of Queensland’s Facebook page.

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