Meek's Cutoff
First screened in May 2011 / Most recently screened in December 2018 / Reviewed in January 2019
Director: Kelly Reichardt. Cast: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Rod Rondeaux, Paul Dano, Will Patton, Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan, Tommy Nelson, Neal Huff. Screenplay: Jonathan Raymond.

Twitter Capsule: (2011) Academy framing a treat, as are visual and sonic textures. But dramatic opportunities get missed. Perfs a bit off?

Second Capsule: (2019) Uneven by some usual standards of acting, arc, or none-too-subtle messaging. Still: kind of an audiovisual miracle.

VOR:   The characters drift but the film lays down brave, determined stakes in a tricky borderzone of independent narrative and avant-garde immersive cinema.

Photo © 2010 Evenstar Films/Film Science/Harmony/
Primitive Nerd, © 2011 Oscilloscope Laboratories
Here's one thing I recall about seeing Meek's Cutoff the first time, in the spring of 2011: I remember entering the theater having heard several critics I respect framing it as an allegory for our then-current national aimlessness, badly off-track even from journeys and missions that invited critique at the best of times, and now failing to function on their own suspect terms. I shared that sense when watching Kelly Reichardt's film, which is immersive and unprescriptive enough to invite multifarious responses, but you do catch it whispering some persistent mantras throughout. We cannot trust our leaders. We don't even recall what fiat or vote installed them as our leaders. We have no idea where we're going. Our resources are dwindling. We have choices to make bewteen our bigotries and our basic survival. How did we arrive at a point where those are our options? Of course, from the perspective of 2019, my mind partly reels to imagine that things felt so bleak then, midway through Obama's first term and before so many domestic and global problems escalated tenfold. But one of our most urgent responsibilities at present is to resist idealizing the recent or distant past just because we wake up in a world that's so manifestly ill and corrupt. Certainly Meek's Cutoff is nothing if not anti-nostalgic—all the more reason to nip these impulses in the bud.

I don't love everything about the movie. I rarely do with Reichardt's films, as thrilled as I am that she's out there making them, hewing to such rare sensibilities about how movies should be built, and whom or what they should be about. For sure, Meek's Cutoff is largely a mood piece, environmental, historical, and political. Analytics regarding the acting or the story construction don't seem especially essential. Still, I'm not convinced the film would suffer if Bruce Greenwood seemed a little more restrained in his role as Stephen Meek, the arrogant leader of this eight-member party traveling the Oregon Trail in the mid-19th-century, promising that he and only he knows the path toward some more hospitable homestead, or at least to some drop of water. I'm not much more taken by Rod Rondeaux as the unnamed, tribally ambiguous Native American who initially poses (or is seen to pose) a violent threat to this all-white, tight-lipped, but deeply agitated caravan, but who might constitute their best hope of rescue, as predicated on his own captivity. He's the only figure in the movie that seems like a romantic device, "idealized" not in the sense of being a gleaming paragon but of feeling more tropic than embodied, someone whom the filmmakers may not know much about beyond the aloof portrait they've furnished on screen. Elsewhere, Reichardt has cast her small ensemble with a disproportionate number of actors who habitually leave me cold. Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, for example, often strike me as playing on top of their lines and their scripts, flagging beats and tones in fairly obvious ways, instead of inhabiting their characters and letting the camera and the audience lean toward them. Michelle Williams, by contrast, has few peers at doing exactly that, and though Meek's premiered during the period when I was still getting a bead on her particular brand of onscreen restraint, this performance helped me get my bearings with her (pun truly unintended). I particularly appreciated the atypical nastiness she emanates as a resentful, impatient traveler with a hostile and racist imagination, even as she stitches those qualities to her gendered indignation and, within this tiny traveling polis, her civic rage at being led so palpably astray by a charlatan, and being expected to shut up about it.

Am I any more skilled a tour guide than Stephen Meek? I've just subjected you to a paragraph of misgivings about a film I'm here to celebrate, privileging evaluative criteria that most commercial U.S. films invite but which, as I've said, Meek's Cutoff asks us to set aside. I apologize for that, though I'd also say that my experience of Meek's Cutoff, especially on an even-more-enthusiastic second viewing, involves admitting and then ignoring its least finessed elements, which often seem designed to frustrate: for instance, the temporal distention of individual shots, which succeed by design in making the movie seem longer than it is. The refusal of a standard beginning/middle/end arc contributes to that sensation as well, though that's another area where I think Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond might have allowed for more inflection without sacrificing the austere integrity of their concepts. Indeed, any lingering reluctance I have about Meek's Cutoff and any tetchiness I feel while watching it concern how it sometimes feels like a smart, defiant, principled mission statement for a movie to follow. A teaser trailer that keeps teasing in its grimly poker-faced way. A couture show on themes of Frontier Counternarrative that's challenging and exciting to ogle but even harder to wear than it needs to be.

So, are you prepared to accompany me as I finally right the course of this response and say that none of the above matters all that much to me? Not as much, anyway, as the tougher, rarer, more innovative things the movie gets so singularly right? Partly they have to do with content. I'm impressed at the way Meek's Cutoff refuses to get too bound up in specificities of individual character and presents whiteness, settler colonialism, frontier nationalism, whatever you want to call it, as an encompassing enterprise in panic, endurance, and desperation, equal parts entitlement and disillusion, plagued by deep internal divisions only eclipsed by what it collectively fears and demonizes. But what really amazes me about Meek's Cutoff are its stylistic and formal convictions, carried to the screen in an uncompromising way, albeit in a movie that's highly agnostic about what it means to refuse compromise. Reichardt's and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt's decision to shoot the sprawling American plains through a cramped frame is a gutsy choice that's even more rewarding (i.e., not simply a dogmatic gesture) because the framings themselves are so articulate. Many images seem to be captured at the fabled "magic hour" when the incipience of dawn or dusk gives the light an especially radiant, roseate quality. It's a fruitful complication, not just a reflex or a sop to viewers, for a film so sternly conceived to offer us so much beauty, in constant, semi-seductive tension with all the cruelty, hardship, and dismay it encapsulates. Furthermore, that beauty is not unqualified. Twilight's last gleaming often has a dusty quality in Blauvelt's lensing; the aridity of the environment is palpable throughout, the temptation toward visual escapism always checked. This isn't Days of Heaven, although that masterpiece has its own ways of ironizing and undermining its sensory sublimity.

I also want to acknowledge the range of photography within Meek's Cutoff, since its firm commitment to its own aesthetic can make a falsely uniform impression. By contrast to that crepuscular quality of so many images, whether dreamy or dusty, Blauvelt lenses other shots with an almost disarming clarity, refusing any of the customary visual habits for building an antique patina of "pastness" into the light, the color-grading, or the depth-of-field. I think these aspects of photography, not just the allegorical potentials engrained in the script, are crucial to how Meek's Cutoff keeps prompting its spectators to contemplate our own present. That we keep doing this, despite the unfussily meticulous mise-en-scène designed by David Doernberg (Junebug, Gummo, Jesus' Son) and despite the period-specific, sun-blasted costumes of Vicki Farrell (High Art, Boys Don't Cry), testifies to the nuances in the film's aesthetic and historical imaginations. I floated my most churlish reactions to the actors higher up in this review, but the admixture of contemporary and period-realist registers in their performances also feel complicit in this interesting dimension of the film.

And how about that sound mix? How about it, indeed. Sometimes you want to say something in a review that feels impossible to extract from decades of hyperbolic cliché, but nevertheless: you could turn off the image of Meek's Cutoff and, based on audio alone, not only have a deep, detailed artistic encounter but glean pretty accurately the movie's story, and its ideas about that story. The creaking of all those wheels and axles are at once a plot point (they're not gonna hold up forever), an ambient constant, and an apt externalizing of the psychological stresses of this trip—especially as the gears and wheels in several travelers' minds are turning more and more toward mutiny. The manner and volume of location-specific sound, the blowing of the wind, the restrained but evocative role of Jeff Grace's score, the way that soft dialogues sometimes get mixed loud, the way full-throated speeches sometimes get muffled by environment: this soundtrack never stops working, without violating the generally ascetic pitch of the project. That Martin Scorsese's garish and cacophonous Hugo won the Oscar for Sound Mixing the year Meek's Cutoff was eligible, that a Transformers movie was also nominated, that popular discussions and industrial referenda on sound as an art so consistently favor what's conspicuous over what's complicated is an ongoing failure of movie discourse, broadly construed. Years and years ago, sound designer Leslie Shatz should have become a household name, at least to #FilmTwitter types, and what he and his colleagues achieve here is august and creative, even by his close-to-peerless standards.

The movie that has always been matched most closely with Meek's Cutoff in my mind is Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar, another poetically compressed, curiously constructed, audiovisually hypnotic tale of travel across forbidding land. In both films, so much hope and so much hopelessness hang in the balance of these impossible treks; so much ideological weight permeates these films, even as they oscillate between direct and indirect figurations of "politics." Even the outfits of the women in Meek's Cutoff and the way Blauvelt frames them against scrabby soil and blowing grass remind me of how the burqa-wearing women of Kandahar look against Afghan terrain. One thing this link brings to mind for me is how movies like Meek's Cutoff, when rendered a certain way, can orient themselves frontally toward their own national contexts, even as comments on their nations of origin or their closest neighbors, and still feel relevant to transnational histories and problems, without being blandly "universal" in their approaches. Another is that certain movies linger in my mind much more for the holistic formal impressions they make than for their approaches to dramaturgy or characterization, which are iffy but also close to immaterial. I don't mean to prize that mode of filmmaking as automatically superior. There's plenty about Meek's Cutoff that I still question, or find unsatisfying. The Homesman, Tommy Lee Jones's sadly overlooked frontier drama of 2014, demonstrates that a more conventional narrative approach (at least, relatively speaking) can unpack many of the same ideas and feelings that Reichardt's movie does without feeling compromised by its more familiar storytelling and protagonist structures. Still, Meek's Cutoff feels special to me, despite my qualms, despite all its orneriness. When I think about it, or now that I'm writing about it, I feel like I'm either over- or under-selling it, and I like how it makes me feel that way. Reichardt has realized a film that only a highly unusual director would conceive and oversee—a type, too, that elicits rare ardor among its devotees, who aren't always guessable in advance. Scott Tobias, a critic and film writer I really treasure, offered on Twitter years ago that Meek's Cutoff "may be my favorite movie since I've been reviewing movies professionally." I loved that claim not just because I admire Scott's taste and reasoning but because I couldn't easily relate to that level of admiration, and I wouldn't have anticipated it from him. It's rare in film culture, and probably ever more so, for movies to attain even the most narrow perch of the marketplace while holding so strongly to their idiosyncrasies, their absolute indifference to being loved, and thereby eliciting such mixed and unpredictable responses. As a time-based text, Meek's Cutoff seems to prosecute and very nearly to belabor one message, but it emerges as more complex than that, in form and theme. As an object circulating in the world, Meek's Cutoff became still more complicated and unpredictable. I'm so grateful for that. Grade: B+

(in May 2011: B)

Venice Film Festival: SIGNIS Award
Independent Spirit Awards: Producers Award

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