Saturday, 27 August 2011

“We’re close, but we don’t know what to”

Meek’s Cutoff: directed by Kelly Reichardt; written by John Raymond

Three families are travelling west on the Oregon Trail in the mid 1800s. They’re under the guidance of the brash, rash and potentially racist Meek who has promised a shortcut but seems to have made them all lost and now desperately in need of water and in the midst of this a “wild Indian” appears. Reichardt’s film is a low low key minimalist drama and her attempts to mirror the tedium of the time are obvious. But, I’ve always commented that I feel that cinema is not a medium which bodes well for stringent attempts at replicating the reality. The film’s opening gives us an image of the travellers’ truding through a river. It doesn’t last very long, and yet it seems to go on forever – especially since they seem to be going nowhere. And, really, that beginning tells you everything you need to know about the film.
I find the poster for the film curious, Michelle Williams is poised with a shotgun implying two things I don’t feel the film has – that she is the film’s lead and that there is combat to be had. Reichardt’s feminist ideals are obvious (but not garish) and as the women have conversations which suggest that they know more than their husbands we’re given glimpses of relationships and characters that we probably could have done well to know more of. But, Reichardt seems intent on being as subversive as possible. She has the makings for a richer story, but is devoted to being as minimalist as possible. It’s an effective method of telling history but it’s difficult to be moved or when there is context to put anything into. The lack of any perspective against which to weigh what we see prevents the film from moving beyond beautifully shot and plodding.

I’ve noticed that a number of good people seem to have fallen in love with Meek’s Cutoff but I’m not impressed. There’s something impressive in trying to recount the monotony that marked the lives of the travellers and we’ve all probably had moments where our lives were discernible for some tedium. But, for me, Reichardt seems to forget that movies are not meant to be didactic exercises in recounting history devoid of any sort of artistic panache. It’s beautifully shot, but she’s become so stringent in attempting some semblance of realism that there remains little space for narrative technique to enter. It’s effective as an account of what life back then was like, but there’s much more to yearn for than that and ultimately the tedium of the families crosses over into tedium for this audience member. The concept flirts with something seismic, but Reichardt’s insistence in ignoring her characters prevents us from getting there.



Robert said...

I didn't read your whole review since I haven't seen the film yet, but I'm a fan of Reichardt so it's too bad it didn't live up for you. I'm looking forward to seeing it!

Yojimbo_5 said...

Count me as one who loved it. Face it, there's not enough room or characters here to create melodrama beyond the survival of the forces of Nature and obstinancy. That the women are second-class citizens in the film does NOT mean that they are any less the focus of this fine, fine film. In fact, they seem to be the glue that holds the whole enterprise together.

Paolo said...

Boo! I suppose I agree with you about the characters, that the film robs Mrs. Tetherow, etc., with any ineriority. I do think that the film is more subtle than that, that the infighting shouldn't be more highlighted than the arid environment in which the film is set.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

robert i'm curious as to what you'd think.

yojimbo sorry about that. i do agree the women are the glue, i didn't explain that as i should have. in regards to the movie, though,i felt so...a word isn't coming to me...stupid, maybe. as if there's something to *get* that i'm palpably missing, to no and paolo are only a few who seem to love it, i'm a bit perplexed.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Well, all I can say is "It's the journey, not the getting there..."

Ryan T. said...

I didn't love it, but I really liked it. It's the kind of film where I would probably have a completely different reaction if I wasn't in the mood. And while Williams is certainly no lead, this film definitely confirmed, to me at least, that she has presence and can hold a screen.