Meek’s Cutoff (2010, Kelly Reichardt)

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Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff is technically a western, but one firmly in the tradition of Terrence Malick’s earlier work: languid, stunningly pretty, hopelessly bleak, the Academy Ratio film traverses across breathtaking flatland vistas that offer a counterpoint to the subtle horror taking place among a group of actors reenacting the real-life story of a group of settlers foraging through the Oregonian desert under increasingly desperate circumstances as their supply of water runs out. They’re goaded along with navigator Stephen Meek, whose legitimacy and skill is called more and more into question, particularly by the female members of the eight-person party.

The fluidity of Reichardt’s technique is not to be faulted here; with a sense of genuine ache and stunning precision, she takes on the most easily cinematic of all genres with considerable aplomb, but of course her aim for the story is not so simple as a mere pastiche of previous movies. The story points, though they have their roots in actual events, are elegantly bare and mostly a jumping-off point from which the actors and characters can extrapolate: the grueling quest across the endless dry land — which you feel, in arduously captured detail — interrupted by increasing internal conflict and finally by the entrance of an erstwhile Native to the repeatedly threatened fold.

Each of the performers manages to carve out an engaging presence, generating plenty of energy despite the deliberately lax pacing; unfortunately, they do this in service of a half-baked script full of inherently simplistic archetypes (despite the welcome injection of some level of feminism; the women are not depicted or treated as lesser figures). Writer Jonathan Raymond saddles Michelle Williams and Bruce Greenwood (as Meek) in particular with a tiresome series of good cop-bad cop exchanges in regard to their conflict over treatment of “the Indian,” toward whom Williams’ Emily is growing increasingly compassionate and attached despite their language barrier. By the eighth or ninth time they cycle through this exchange, no one’s more ready to move on than the viewer. It’s difficult to imagine how poor this must look on the page, which emphasizes just how much director, cinematographer, and actors have done to make this mediocre screenplay into a worthwhile film.

The camera loves Williams, who internalizes her conflicts about the situation, her marriage and the outsider beautifully; it’s a splendid performance, though even she is upstaged a bit by the masterful Paul Dano as the equally conflicted Thomas Gately — the script reveals nothing much about him at all, that’s all left to the actor. Yet it’s easy to see why Reichardt and her troupe was attracted to this story; it’s like John Ford’s The Searchers in that it’s minimalistic enough to brush up with all sorts of big ideas without thoroughly engaging them, and while remaining basically honest and somewhat entertaining. There is a painstaking sense of realism to the piece, and a welcome injection of tension in the last act, although in some respects the finale is ill-advised.

That’s because it’s inherently misleading. Meek’s Cutoff closes with a bleak suggestion that as the Indian leaves the party behind, imminent doom or liquid salvation awaits the Meek group, either one signaled by the ominous tree that stands forebodingly in their path. The problem with this is that with the film based on a matter of historical record, it’s easy enough to look up the full account on Google or Wikipedia and discover that the ambiguous finale is a bit half-baked — the group did in fact find water and survive. As a piece of cinema, the sad and open-ended finale works well enough, even if it operates the way it does partially as a result of circumstance (the production company ran out of money to shoot the last scene), but the tying of it to an actual scenario robs it of some of its impact. Most films that end so darkly and suddenly leave you with a festering feeling that grows and changes gradually over the next hours and days (see A Serious Man or There Will Be Blood for good examples); the more you read about this, the more unfinished it really seems.

Don’t tell writer Raymond, though; he thinks the ending works because it filters out the people he seems to consider dummies who’d flock to a movie because it has Michelle Williams in it. I’m unaware of such people — Williams is not exactly a dunderheaded starlet, I know firsthand she’s a voracious reader and to boot evidently far less of a snob than Raymond is — but I certainly don’t feel too comfortable lending a great deal of support to the work of a guy with such a condescending attitude toward potential audience members. If you feel you have to “trick” people into seeing your arthouse movie, maybe what you really need is an extra few drafts. As it is, Raymond had a hand in a promising and intriguing film, nearly by accident. Lucky him.

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