Rocky road to re­demp­tion

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Reviews -

IT’S 1845, post-buf­falo but pre-transcon­ti­nen­tal rail­road, and three fam­i­lies in a wagon train are slowly mak­ing their way over Ore­gon’s Cas­cade Moun­tains. Or are they? Emily (Michelle Wil­liams), the forth­right young bride of Solomon Tetherow (Will Pat­ton) doesn’t seem to think so, nor does her heav­ily preg­nant friend Glory White (Shirley Hen­der­son).

The women are far from re­as­sured when the posse’s guide, a snake-oil sales­man by the name of Stephen Meek (Bruce Green­wood) in­sists on send­ing the em­i­grants in dif­fer­ent di­rec­tions to look for wa­ter. “We’re not lost,” smirks the old brag­gart, “we’re find­ing our way.”

The bar­ren land­scape sug­gests other­wise. Nerves are fray­ing. Mil­lie Gately (Zoe Kazan), a pretty pi­o­neer car­ry­ing a yel­low bird in a golden cage while live­stock die, is in­creas­ingly wor­ried about the sav­ages. “Will the ter­ri­tory go Amer­i­can?” she anx­iously in­quires.

Mil­lie and her hus­band Thomas (Paul Dano) are thus greatly dis­tressed when a Cayuse (Rod Ron­deaux) is spot­ted on the hori­zon. Meek cap­tures and

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tor­tures the in­jun un­til Emily in­ter­venes. Af­ter all, the na­tive has to know this mythic coun­try bet­ter than Meek does.

An­other week, an­other west­ern. For a genre long pre­sumed dead and buried at Sad Hill Ceme­tery, the horse opera is a pretty am­bu­la­tory beast. But the 21st-cen­tury breed, un­like most of the oaters of old, is cere­bral, self-con­scious and schol­arly. It probes. It philosophises. It has what Ian Faith might call “more se­lec­tive ap­peal”.

In­die god­dess Kelly Re­ichardt’s new film is pret­tily em­blem­atic of the new Clever Hans west­ern. The real Stephen Meek led hun­dreds across the North West­ern pass; here his dozen or so charges scale the pic­ture down to­ward the min­i­mal­ist, ex­is­ten­tial di­men­sions that Re­ichardt used so well in Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy.

Clunky bird­cage metaphors aside, Meek’s Cut­off is a film com­posed of small, harsh re­al­i­ties. The di­rec­tor has some wry fun with the an­gu­lar score and mythic ter­rain (the fi­nal shot is a doozy), but mostly she’s min­ing a tac­tile his­tory of a sort found in jour­nals and let­ters. This is a movie about flies and dust and pulling ropes and the end­ing squeak of the wheel.

It’s tempt­ing to at­tribute the film’s earth­i­ness to the gen­der of its au­thor. But Re­ichardt’s in­ter­est in a woman’s eye-view of the his­tor­i­cal west does not pre­vent her from strid­ing af­ter the big boys. The grand vogu­ish al­lu­sions and echoes of Pic­nic at Hang­ing Rock, Days of Heaven and 2001: A Space Odyssey mark Meek’s Cut­off as some­thing more mul­ti­fac­eted than a girl-racer fem­i­nist text.

Di­rected by Cather­ine Hard­wicke. Star­ring Amanda Seyfried, Julie Christie, Gary Old­man, Vir­ginia Mad­sen, Billy Burke, Shiloh Fer­nan­dez, Max Irons

Di­rected by Kelly Re­ichardt. Star­ring Michelle Wil­liams, Paul Dano, Bruce Green­wood, Shirley Hen­der­son, Neal Huff, Will Pat­ton Lit­tle miss on the prairie: Michelle Wil­liams in Meek’s Cut­off

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