Friday, May 13, 2011

Meek’s Cutoff: Life With the Dull Bits Left In

Meek's Cutoff
Director Alfred Hitchcock once said famously that “drama is life with the dull bits left out.” But American filmmaker Kelly Reichardt seems determined to prove him wrong as her movies take the exact opposite tack. Not only does she leave in the ‘dull bits,’ her films, such as Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008), could be said to be mainly composed of those elements. Watching her films always reminds me of that old chestnut that movies are supposed to be ‘moving pictures,’ which is something her movies rarely do. Her latest opus, the quasi-western Meek’s Cutoff, demonstrates more of her same ‘qualities’ of inertia and somnolence.

Set in the Oregon territory of 1845, Meek’s Cutoff, which is loosely based on fact, centres on a band of would be homesteaders, three couples, one with a child, and their guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who have gotten dangerously lost in the forbidding desert. Running low on supplies, and more ominously, on water, they’ve begun to suspect that Meek doesn’t really know where he’s going and must make a fateful decision: should they head out in a different direction or stick with their guide and, thus possibly die with him, as well? When they capture an Indian (Ron Rondeaux), of the Cayuse tribe, a new possibility presents itself. Maybe, just maybe, their captive can lead them to water and safety. But since they can’t communicate with him – none speak his language, nor he theirs – they don’t know what to do or whom to trust: Meek – who is virulently hostile to the Cayuse – or the Indian. (He’s not given any other name in the credits but that one.) 

Bruce Greenwood in Meek's Cutoff
That in a nutshell is the whole story of Meek’s Cutoff, which is not focused so much on whether the prospective settlers will survive their ordeal than it is on the specifics of their dire situation, as they begin to fracture into different camps. Whether you’ll find any of this compelling may be a matter of (artistic) temperament, but I would argue that Reichardt manages to wring all the tension and, yes drama, out of her story, which is written by her long time collaborator, Jonathan Raymond, reducing her tale to, well, not much of interest at all.

Shot on location, Meek’s Cutoff isn’t devoid of atmosphere – that’s Reichardt's sole strength as a filmmaker – but, unlike the superb HBO TV series Deadwood, set only a few decades later in the South Dakota territory, she’s utterly incapable of locating the mundane facts of day to day life within the parameters of meaningful existence as that show did so well. Meek’s Cutoff is so narrowly interested in showing us exactly how the settlers lived, from the inappropriateness of their thick clothing in a desert setting to the way the women (mostly) defer to their men, that the film neglects to broaden its scope and tell us something more provocative and gripping than that. The film’s ostensibly most suspenseful scene, a classic western stand-off, isn’t. The movie may not be as irritating or tiresome as Gus Van Sant’s supremely tedious film Gerry (2002), another American lost in the desert misadventure, but it’s about as negligible. 

Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff
In that vein, and since the film’s plot and characterization are so rudimentary, the actors can’t really rise to the occasion and do much with their roles. Except for learning that one of the men, Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton), lost his first wife and has remarried to the younger Emily (Michelle Williams), whose independent spirit he much admires, we are given almost nothing of the protagonists' back stories. Reichardt, and Raymond, no doubt, are doing that deliberately so, we, like the settlers, stay firmly in the here and now, but it hardly makes for a compelling reason to care a damn about these people. The acting is fine, for what it is – even Paul Dano (so terrible and miscast in  Paul Thomas Anderson's overwrought There Will be Blood) as one of the more nervous settlers, gives a modulated performance – but these slim parts, also including Shirley Henderson (various Harry Potter films as Moaning Myrtle) as a British-born member of the party, are hardly conducive to tour-de-force acting. Even the talented Greenwood (Capote, Star Trek) is stranded with a monotonous, one-note part as the quintessential Ugly American. The character played by Michelle Williams, one of our finest talents (Brokeback Mountain, Shutter Island, Blue Valentine) is shown to be feisty at times and demonstrates some iron will, but those are superficial characteristics at best. It’s not something with which to enhance one’s resume; at least Williams’ comparatively substantial role in Reichardt’s last film, Wendy and Lucy, as an economically struggling woman, allowed her to do some real emoting, though the film ultimately didn’t amount to much. 

Director Kelly Reichardt
Reichardt is not a stupid filmmaker; she has something to say, either offering a heartfelt paean to marginalized folk in America or, in Meek’s Cutoff, to the ordinary people never written about in the history books, but she lacks the ability to enrich her concepts and deliver a flesh and blood, meaty and gripping point of view. At worst, as in Old Joy, a look at two emotionally lost, disaffected American liberals, she populates her movies with singularly banal individuals who wear out their welcome pretty much as soon as they open their mouths. At best, and I use the term loosely, as in Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff, she delivers films that are underwhelming, enervated and directed in a (very) minor key. I find it surprising that, over the years, Kelly Reichardt has accrued such a remarkably high and consistent quotient of rapturous critical reviews. Like her other movies, Meek’s Cutoff barely raises a cinematic sweat.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto . He teaches courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute

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