Friday, April 15, 2011

Review: Meek's Cutoff

Little wagons on the prairie

Source: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Meek's Cutoff begins with a river crossing, and remember it well because that's the most water you're going to see for a while. The film tells the tale of a group of American settlers traversing the prairie for pastures new. Soon, they're running short of H2O to keep them going, and there's not an oasis in sight, only seemingly endless barren plains. Guided by hired, experienced trekker Stephen Meek, the three couples and one young boy walk onwards, ever hopeful that there'll be something over the next hill.

Following on from the rather wonderful Wendy & Lucy, Kelly Reichardt's latest is another story of emotional intensity and desperation starring Michelle Williams. Shot in glorious, erm, 1.33:1, the boxed aspect ratio is in stark contrast to the sweeping but rugged wilds our wagon team are traversing. In fact, the squared visuals, once you get used to them, are a strength for the film, creating a claustrophobic vibe despite the spectacularly open setting. The focus is - pun! - squarely on the eight characters (plus one more who tags along after a while).

This is the cinema of desperation - rarely has a situation felt so utterly frustrating for both the characters on screen and the audience gazing in through a window. If you've seen Wendy & Lucy, you'll likely be prepared for the narcoleptic pacing - it's considered, thoughtful and, yup, slow. It's Reichardt's almost signature style, although it serves a further function here. That the film forces the audience to make an effort is important, considering these travelers aren't going through an easy situation themselves. Be warned, though, the 'considered' tone won't be for everyone - the (IMO brilliant) ending elicited some vocal discontent in the cinema screen from some corners.

The performances reflect this growing hopelessness effectively. The young Zoe Kazan becomes increasingly paranoid, her husband Paul Dano equally so. Shirley Henderson as Glory is her typical, almost childlike self, unsure how to deal with the situation. But the two strongest roles are the two characters who refuse to abandon all hope. Michelle Williams once again provides evidence that she's one of the most capable actresses in contemporary American cinema: as Emily she shows frustration as the situation worsens, but refuses to abandon her morals. She comes in to conflict with guide Meek (the excellent Bruce Greenwood) who is just certain they're going the right way. He knows what he's doing, he assures everyone. It becomes painfully obvious he's as lost as anyone else. When they pick up an unwelcome visitor, tensions escalate even more.

The cinematography is beautiful, the night scenes particularly notable for looking like night, the only light the small campfires or lamps the settlers carry. It adds to the realism. Indeed, this is a gritty "Western", grittier than that other one which claimed to have true grit a few months ago. You can truly feel the dust here, the characters getting progressively filthier. The sparse score helps too, only kicking in at moments of particular intensity, such as the tiny handful of action setpieces, although 'action' is stretching it a bit. In short, it's understated, sombre, and moving cinema, the kind that awards an audience's commitment by really getting under the skin. Rarely has frustration felt so immensely beautiful.

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