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A Film About Us: Review of Meek's Cutoff
is the latest ponderous, gorgeously shot film from the minimalist indie director Kelly Reichardt, whose two previous films–2006's
Wendy & Lucy
–were striking examples of her delicately academic approach to cinema and interest in exploring journeying characters in moments of despair (existential, personal, psychological).
Reichardt, who is a professor of film at Bard College, makes films that are spare, simple, reflective, and yet deeply affecting.
is perhaps her most mesmerizing film yet. With the patience and experimental spirit of Gus Van Sant and the naturalistic style and existential curiosity of Terrence Malick, Reichardt has emerged as one of the great up-and-coming auteurs in cinema.
Set in 1845 Oregon, in the early days of the Oregon Trail,
follows the covered wagon journey of three families and the mountain man guide (Stephen Meek) who is leading them through the wilderness on the way to the Willamette Valley. From the beginning of the film, our protagonists are seemingly lost, running out of water, facing Oregon Trail-style challenges (broken axles, hungry oxen, forging rivers). They are suspicious that Meek doesn’t really know where they are going. As the film progresses, frustration increases and despair sets in. The party capture an Indian, keeping him prisoner and using him as a guide. But is he any more reliable than Meek? Is he leading them in the right direction? Or to their doom?
What’s magnificent about the film is that it puts us exactly in the shoes of these hapless frontier sojourners. There is no God’s eye view or knowing narrator that gives the audience a privileged perspective. We know what they do, we discover things as they do. When they look nervously or quizzically at their Indian prisoner, we ponder just as they do.
Reichardt’s minimalist style reflects camerawork that is not indifferent; just restrained, observational. Her shots are unembellished and yet certainly personal, aligning in particular with the feminine gaze of the film’s center of gravity: Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams). In the deeply expressive eyes of Williams (who also starred in Reichardt’s last film,
Wendy & Lucy
), we recognize our own blend of empathy, fear, disgust, repression and longing.
[READ: "Ten Most Transcendent Films of Last Decade"]
But this isn’t a film about one heroine’s point of view; it’s a film about our point of view. How do we read images? Reichardt recognizes the inherent ambiguity of the photographed image–that in as much as it captures reality in some sense, it also opens up the possibilities of interpreted reality. Each film shot captures something we can recognize: wagons moving along a horizontal plan, a woman gathering wood for a fire, clouds billowing across a big western sky. And yet it’s also ambiguous. What do we read into the faces that we see? Do we interpret the desert landscape as something fearsome and ominous? Or beautiful and stately? What lies beyond the four edges of a film’s rectangular frame? The nature of cinema is suggestion and open-endedness, and Reichardt seizes upon this in
What exactly is this film about? Can we read political subtext into it? Commentary on race relations? A feminist perspective? Each viewer likely will see something different in it, and yet something profound. In that way, it succeeds in the same way a film like Michael Haneke’s
The White Ribbon
does: Capturing palpable mood, tension, very real actions and emotions, and yet totally open to interpretation and actively involving the viewer in the process of decoding its meaning. The ambiguity of it will frustrate some and enthrall others. I definitely fall in the latter camp.
Have you seen
, and if so, what was your take? Can you think of other movies that seemed like they tapped into your experience as much as the onscreen characters'?
I saw Meek's Cut-off last Saturday with my wife and teenage daughter. Like you, I am one of those whose reaction to the movie is contemplation and appreciation. Thanks for your review, and I hope more people see it's. Interesting you titled your review "A Movie About Us." At Q PDX, we were told that the movie about us was Tree of Life. While I haven't seen Tree yet, it seems like the two films both deal with nature and grace, the mysterious workings of God, whom we must become "meek" before, trusting His leading. The same theme is found in The Return, a Russian movie depicting our plight of being in the back seat of a car that Dad is driving, a Dad whom we really don't know, and whom we are tempted to think does NOT have our best interests at heart. This is our normal life, tempted by the serpent to distrust not God's power, but His goodness, His care for us. I found out about The Return form Jeffrey Overstreet. His comments on Meek's Cutoff can be found here::
BTW, Meek's Cutoff is real, as was Stephen Meek. You can read about his failed efforts leading a train of 100 or so wagons on the Cutoff at wikipedia. I know Joe Meek, who was for a time a state legislator here in Oregon, He is a descendant of Stepnen's brother Joe. I pastor in Oregon City, the official end of the Oregon Trail..
I want to see this movie so badly. I'm going this weekend. My neighbor in Toronto saw it and says she was going to be thinking about it for the next month. I like movies that make me think rather than merely entertain.
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