Thursday, 19 January 2012

MEEK'S CUTOFF - Terence Malick by way of John Ford with a feminist sensibility yields one of the great westerns of this or any other time.

Meek's Cutoff (2011)
dir. Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood


By Greg Klymkiw

This is the REAL Tree of Life - a strange, poetic, beautiful and almost elegaic journey through the desert flats of the Oregon Trail during the mid 19th century. Meek's Cutoff is a western, but there are few oaters that are anything like it. In terms of subject matter, How The West Was Won immediately comes to mind, but it's raucous and sprawling in ways this film isn't. John Ford's Wagon Master comes close in terms of both subject matter and its lower-keyed qualities for Ford. Maybe the closest film that comes to it is Peter Fonda's criminally ignored and forgotten The Hired Hand - an introspective western with a deliberate pace and a keen eye for detail.

None of them, ultimately, are Meek's Cutoff. It's in a class all by itself.

Wagon trains have always made for great material in westerns, but this is probably the first movie I've ever seen that comes close to giving a sense of just how gruelling and horrendous such journeys must have been. At the same time, it still manages to incorporate a mythic sense of the big skies of America in ways that the aforementioned John Ford, in particular, was able to capture.

Director Kelly Reichardt and her cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt seem to always know just exactly where to place the camera for maximum dramatic (and poetic) impact. Blauvelt has been a camera operator and first (or second) assistant camera person on everything from Geronimo and Speed to Zodiac and A Single Man - a fabulous list of titles that, no doubt, served him in good stead on this picture (and make me salivate at the prospect of seeing more work from him. Reichardt, for her part, is a gifted film artist who is endowed with a keen eye and a whole lot of heart (her Wendy and Lucy is a beautiful film in all respects). As well, the cutting style she employs is simply breathtaking. (Yup, she does double duty here and is, frankly one of the few directors I am happy to call a "filmmaker".)

The tale is as simple as could be. Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is a surly, craggy mountain man with a seemingly greater knack for spinning yarns than he is at guiding his charges through the early days of the Oregon Trail. He's leading three wagons through Hell - but, it's a terrible beauty that surrounds these early pioneers. The sky is as big and beautiful as it is ominous, while the landscape is at once harsh, and yet as pristine and unsullied as one could imagine. Meek is convinced he has a better way to the promised land, but as the journey progresses, the settlers begin to think he's lost. Much of the emotional conflict comes from their growing disenchantment with his guiding prowess, while the obvious physical conflict is between man and nature - crossing rivers, deserts and moving up and down through rugged terrain takes both a physical and psychological toll on all of them.

Meek and the settlers are also worried that they're being stalked by Indians. When they encounter a mysterious aboriginal (Ron Rondeaux) all on his own, they begin to fear even more for their lives. As the journey progresses, however, it's the young, tough-as-nails and level-headed Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) who places much faith in the Indian and suspects he's their only chance at salvation - especially since they've been without a proper supply of water for quite some time. By his actions - praying, chanting and etching markings whenever he can - it becomes quite obvious he's alone; possibly a medicine man on a spirit quest. Not unlike the similar and solitary journeys of such Old and New Testament figures as Moses and Jesus respectively, the Indian IS a genuine figure of salvation. That said, Meek and the men doubt his motives, and not unlike all of the Holy Bible's doubting Thomases and their lack of faith in Moses and Jesus. I don't want to tread to heavily in this territory, but Emily, is surely a Mary Magdalene figure who offers support and ultimately places her trust in the Indian. By saving his life, she might also be saving that of herself and the others.

Reichardt's pacing and overall mise-en-scene is utterly exquisite. She places her camera in a fixed position and, from shot to shot, she tells her story in absolutely stunning tableaux. Not only does this provide a glimpse into the hardships these people encounter, but captures so many delicate details of character, nuance and psychology. This also captures the milieu of what it's like to be in the middle of nowhere - the way sound travels (or doesn't), the manner in which people communicate, work and rest and finally, the land - its power, glory, expanse and yes, danger. When a cut happens, it's not only breathtaking, it moves us ever forward and draws us in even deeper into the world, the characters and narrative.

Reichardt and Blauvelt also make the brave and brilliant decision to shoot the film in the square box aspect ratio (1:1:37) that ruled cinema for over five decades of film history. When the camera is in wide, or even medium shots in this ratio, the simple square captures the drama in ways that widescreen (rectangular) ratios simply cannot. It allows for expanse, but does so in a manner that captures the vertical breadth of what it's like to be out on the plains. It also plays in beautifully with a sense of the Heavens, always hanging well above the figures in the landscape - making the spiritual physical in ways that I've seldom experienced on film (save, perhaps, for the painterly compositions of John Ford's exteriors). When this aspect ratio is in closeup, the power is even more apparent in terms of the details it captures - images that appear etched from both the faces and physical environment the settlers are living in.

Lighting and sound are also handled in an original and powerful manner. Shots at night seem lit only by the candles, lamps or campfire, whilst during the day, it is natural light that floods everything with its natural beauty. (I'm sure bounce boards, various filters and lights WERE used, but if so, in moderation or with such delicacy that they don't overwhelm the natural beauty.) The sound captures (or at least approximates) how it is heard (or not heard) by both the characters and us. Whole conversations are barely audible from certain vantage points - most powerfully when the women are forced to keep a considerable distance from the men as matters are discussed that are not in the purview of womankind. Often, these are matters women SHOULD be apprised of, but within this old world - gender is what determines one's place and Reichardt is unsparing in providing the necessary and real aural point of view.

In terms of performance, there are no false notes though ultimately, the movie belongs to Michelle Williams. If there are any greater contemporary actresses of her generation, I'd like to know who they are. Film after film, she dazzles with her screen presence and versatility. Here, she is ultimately the opposite of their guides surname. Meek, as superbly played by Canadian Bruce Greenwood is all bluster. Williams wears meek subservience as a mask, but in her eyes, you sense intelligence, life and scrutable qualities. And when she asserts herself, it is with a calm, controlled power.

Speaking of said power, I began this assessment of Meek's Cutoff by invoking Terence Malick's mind-numbingly dull, obtuse and wildly overrated The Tree of Life. Reichardt's film is infused with a similar contemplative sense, a determined pace and a spirituality that feels rooted in nature and the land. The difference here, is that it really means something.

Meek's Cutoff also provides a tree of life. Reichardt uses it both symbolically AND as a literal plot element. It is a tree rooted in the land these settlers risk everything to traverse across and it is, finally, a tree that provides hope, growth and lifeblood. Meek's Cutoff is worth a hundred of Malick's film. In fact, it feels like Malick in his prime, but with dollops of John Ford and even, at times, Robert Bresson (especially in terms of an almost expressionistic neo-realism).

It's a great movie. I've seen it several times now. It gets richer with every viewing and between screenings, it refuses to let go. The movie roots itself within your very core - growing and pulsating with life.

"Meek's Cutoff" Was first unveiled in Canada by the Toronto International Film Festival's TIFF Bell LightBox. It is available on Bluray and DVD on the Oscilloscope Home Entertainment label with a raft of superb special features. The movie comes to Canadian viewers by way of the visionary company VSC. It's a movie worth owning - to cherish again and again.