The year is 1845 and the setting is the still untamed Oregon Territory. Three couples, one with a young boy, wagons, livestock and the whole of their belongings in tow, are being led west by Stephen Meek, the appropriately grizzled guide. When we first meet these untested wouldbe settlers we slowly but surely are let in on the sad fact that Meek, while claiming to know a shortcut to their destination (the titular cutoff if you will) has gotten them lost in a hostile environment of savagery and unforgiving elements. It is a western of subtle intensity, building crescendo like to its inevitable, abrupt ending. It is not an easy film - but then who but the weak want easy - but it is worth the effort one must put into it. A feral, brooding beast moving along with a determined gait, ever at the ready to pounce upon its unsuspecting prey - both the film's characters and the audience alike.
Kelly Reichardt's artistic choice to film Meek's Cutoff in the old style 1:33 aspect ratio probably seems rather unusual to many a modern day moviegoer so used to the ubiquitous wonder of widescreen (in the theater as well as at home on TV) and therefore, even if they do not know why, perhaps makes them a bit uncomfortable as well - ready to become as brutalized as those unfortunate frontiersmen and women they are watching. Perhaps too, this is exactly the feeling Reichardt wants in her audience - a subtle, awkward feeling of disarray that mirrors, though on a much lesser plain, the discomforting sense of doom that weighs down the characters up there on that strangely square screen.
Playing with the same sense of deliberate - some would say slow - pacing that gave both Old Joy and especially Wendy and Lucy such powerful post-movie resonance, and has come to represent the director's auteurial signature, Reichardt's subtly remarkable new film has something that grabs tight hold of the viewer (even those who are not uncomfortably put off by the oddly shaped image) and refuses to let go even well after the movie has ended. It is this painstakingly methodical approach that not only gives the film its intensity but also makes it that much more emotionally draining to watch. The film figuratively batters its audience with an unending despair and that is just what the director wants.
Of course, subtly stylized filmmaking (and gorgeous cinematography reminiscent of the equally aspect ratio'd westerns of Mann and Hawks) aside, the grounding force in this movie - the thing that keeps it from ripping apart in every direction as the characters fight amongst themselves as they fall further and further into an unforgiving wilderness and the inherent dangers involved in such (which includes the self-centered Meek - and all-but unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood - claiming things he has no idea of, the capture of an Indian who may or may not lead these intrepid settlers to safety and the breakdown of thhe youngest couple, defiantly played by Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan) - is the director's favourite actress, Michelle Williams.
Giving another in what has become now a long line of brilliant and bravura performances, Williams (the best actor working today - there I said it!) acts as both moral compass and driving force behind this movie and the tragedies unfolding within it. Perhaps not as heartbreakingly painful as her turn in Reichardt's last film, Wendy and Lucy (I still get random chills from that one) or last year's Oscar-nominated performance in Blue Valentine (should have been Oscar-winning btw), Williams is the veritable heart and soul of Meek's Cutoff, and it is she the audience is meant to commune with.
As more than alluded to earlier, Meek's Cutoff is not a film for everyone. Between its methodical insistent cadence, lack of over-dialogue (nary a word be spoken throughout many long stretches, including the first eight minutes or so), dearth of audience-friendly action sequences and the film's sudden, open-ended ending (the average moviegoer just hates those) make for a cinema of endurance. A gorgeous, succulent cinema of endurance. Meek's Cutoff is a revisionist revisionist western (some claim it to be a woman's western as we are led through the film by the womenfolk's - Williams, Kazan and Shirley Henderson - point of view) and it is actually more in tune with the cinema of Angelopoulos and Bela Tarr than that of the aforementioned Mann and Hawks.
Reichardt's film is a starkly stunning piece of cinema but something that many a typical modern moviegoer are not ready for. It is a shame really since skipping such a hard film to watch for them means also missing out on one of the best cinematic experiences of the last few seasons. [05/28/11]