Director Kelly Reichardt crafts a tense fable with no clear morality
Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy) is one of the most interesting American filmmakers working today and her latest feature film delivers on all fronts. Meek’s Cutoff belongs to the slender sub strata of the Western genre previously inhabited only by Jim Jarmusch’s seminal 1995 film Dead Man. Reichardt adopts the myth-making framework in order to empty it out from within: this is subversive, highly intelligent filmmaking.
Set in 1845 on the harsh and arid Oregon planes, the film plays out as a major drama in a minor mode. The landscape here is not a reflection of the main characters’ inner emotional worlds as it would be in the classical Western (as best exemplified in the films of Anthony Mann and John Ford). Nature in Meek’s Cutoff remains indifferent to the embattled and deeply flawed protagonists (played by a uniformly excellent cast including Reichardt’s regular collaborator Michelle Williams). The film is also a study in ambiguity: just as Reichardt casts her characters into a liminal zone in which they cannot find their bearings, so too does she throw into crisis the established moral compass of this genre. Tellingly, the film’s conclusion attests to the impossibility of a clear-cut moral code, which is its real triumph.
Reichardt’s meticulous and, it must be said, beautiful visual style requires that the viewer pay attention to the most infinitesimal of details – words that go unspoken, subtle gestures, that which remains on the periphery of the film frame. By eschewing the use of widescreen (the traditional format for the Western), the director also renders this cinematic world claustrophobic and fraught with an atmosphere of impending peril. Despite its small scale though, there is something epic about this film (in part due to its political subtext), which certainly warrants and rewards multiple viewings.
GFT, Glasgow and Filmhouse Edinburgh from Fri 15-Thu 21 Apr.