Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)
I was less than impressed with Wendy and Lucy, Kelly Reichardt’s debut film, but it did redeem itself during the final fifteen minutes, so when Meek’s Cutoff appeared, I gave it a look. It features Rules of Engagement‘s Bruce Greenwood, one of Hollywood’s great underutilized, and that is a fine enough reason to watch any film. But Kelly Reichardt has turned in something quite good here, impressionist and open-ended and very artfully composed, almost the diametric opposite of Wendy and Lucy, and I liked it a good deal.
Plot: three families are headed to California in 1845 along the Oregon Trail, hoping to find their fortunes in the west. Seeking a shortcut, they have hired Samuel Meek (Greenwood), a native of the area, who claims to know a shortcut through the mountains. As time goes on, however, the settlers begin to question whether Mr. Meek knows a shortcut at all—or whether he’s full of hot air. After wandering the desert for days with no water, the party comes across an Indian who claims he can lead them to water—stranding the party between keeping their trust in a man who has yet to earn it and placing it instead in a man who has always been painted as the enemy of the white man.
The following paragraph could be construed to have spoilers; if you are sensitive to that sort of thing, stop reading now, and just note that I am recommending you see this as long as you’re a fan of the slow and arty.
I mentioned, in the opening paragraph, the two things about this movie that truly struck me: the composition and the ambiguity. The composition can be seen early on; there are some incredible shots in the first ten or fifteen minutes of this movie (including a fade so perfect I actually rewound and watched it six or seven times in succession), and things just keep getting better. That shot with the three wives (Brokeback Mountain‘s Michelle Williams, Ruby Sparks‘ Zoe Kazan, and Life During Wartime‘s Shirley Henderson) walking in a diagonal line across the landscape? That’s artistry right there. It’s also blindingly artificial, so if you have a problem with pretentiousness in your movies, you probably want to run away quickly. As well, the ambiguity of the thing seems to have led more viewers to frustration than anything else; at no point in this movie do we ever know, well, anything about what’s going on. Is Meek a charlatan? We never find out. Does the Indian (who is never named, a very telling point) ever actually lead the party to water? We never find out. The end credits roll about three minutes before most people think they should. I found that to be a strength instead of a weakness, but it’s still frustrating enough that I felt the need to shave a bit off the rating.
Still, Kelly Reichardt gets my vote for Most Improved Filmmaker, 2010 edition. If this is the quality of work we can look forward to from her, I eagerly await the next feature. *** ½