Friday, May 6, 2011
Director Kelly Reichardt and actress Michelle Williams teamed successfully for "Wendy and Lucy" in 2008. They now re-team for the period film "Meek's Cutoff" (opening May 6 at Landmark's Hillcrest Cinemas).
"Wendy and Lucy" won acclaim for its quiet and meticulous portrait of a woman waylaid by bad luck en route to a job in Alaska. Michelle Williams (who has slowly established herself as an indie darling after starting her career with trifles like "Dawson's Creek") played the young woman living with no margin for error. Now she is playing another woman thrown off course by fate; she's a woman of greater fortitude but one who's living just as precariously.
In 'Meek's Cutoff" Williams plays Emily, one of a small group of settlers traveling through Oregon in 1845. They have placed their faith and hopes in a mountain man named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). He claims to know a short cut to get them through the Cascade Mountains but he ends up taking the three families down an unmarked trail that leads them only to dust and sage in the dry, rocky Oregon desert. As the days pass the travelers grow hungry, thirsty, and eager to blame someone for their plight. They eventually cross paths with a Native American (well played by stuntman and actor Rod Rondeaux) who speaks no English and stirs their fears about the dangers of such "savages." But maybe this savage knows more about the terrain than the man they have paid to guide them.
The press notes describe the film as "based on actual events." Reichardt endows the film with a very naturalistic feel, much as she did with "Wendy and Lucy." At times the film feels almost like an ethnographic documentary as it shows us how things were done nearly two centuries ago when families were blazing the Oregon Trail. We see how they prepared meals, how they maneuvered their wagons over rough terrain, and how to use a gun. But Reichardt's insistence on conveying the grueling nature of the monotonous journey runs the risk of alienating her audience. If she was this set on making the film experience mirror that of the characters that she should ask the theaters to cut off the air conditioning, blow dust on viewers, and keep them deprived of food and water. The films tests our patience just as circumstances test the characters' patience and endurance. But is that really the point of art? I found myself growing frustrated with Reichardt because I felt like I got her point and she kept drilling it home.
The film is not without merits. The acting is fine and Reichardt definitely has a flair for naturalism. She has a good eye for placing her characters against this indifferent landscape, and for building a slow sense of dread as their fate grows more and more uncertain. The scene of Emily trying to reload a musket (or maybe it's a rifle I'm not sure) and taking so long to pour in the powder, then the lead ball, then fire, then repeat effectively takes us back in time to a different level of technology. There's also a nice sense of the social climate at the time. Even in the vast new frontier there are gender roles and the men make all the decisions while the women are placed just out of earshot straining to hear -- as we the audience are also made to do -- what the men are saying and deciding.
But Reichardt drags her film out to such a degree that it tries one's patience in the same way that Sofia Coppola did with "Somewhere." Both films display the kind of arty pretentiousness that can give art house films a bad name. Reichardt obviously wants to create a revisionist western and that's driven home with her deliberately ambiguous ending. But by the time you reach the end you feel like what's the point? At least the settlers were exploring a new frontier in hopes of a better life. Reichardt can pretend she is exploring new artistic ground but she hits just as many clichés as the genre films she's trying to reinvent. You can pretty much predict what will happen -- the settlers will be tested, tensions will stir fears and accusations, Emily will stand up for the Native American against the racism we know will come, someone will get hysterical at their plight, and people will die in pursuit of their dreams. Despite Reichardt's dedication to realis, the clothes look like someone just sprinkled dust on nicely laundered dresses. There's no real sense of wear and tear on the clothes. Similarly, the horses and oxen don't look as badly off as they should be for animals straining in the heat with barely any water. So its a select attention to realistic detail.
"Meek's Cutoff" (rated PG for some mild violent content, brief language and smoking) is an art house film hampered by its own artiness and pretension. It feels like a narrative exercise or a laundry list of things to show us from the Old West. Maybe it would work better as one of those visual dictionary books on the Old West. In the end, it's like being with the folks blazing the Oregon Trail. So prepare for long stretches of boredom interrupted by moments of drama and an underlying sense of panic as you fear your journey will never end.
Companion viewing: "Wendy and Lucy," Jim Jarmusch's "Dead Man," "The Proposition"