Rocky road to redemption
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
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