directed by Kelly Reichardt; written by Jonathan Raymond; starring Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Bruce Greenwood, Rod Rondeaux, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson
screened on October 18th and 19th
Early in Meek’s Cutoff, we watch a carriage rattle out of frame, and see a man on horseback appear on the hill behind it. Except we don’t, because that man is on a different hill, ahead of the carriage, and this is two shots gradually dissolving between each other. For brief moments, the landscapes merge. They are, of course, the same landscape, the same rising terrain that the travellers we follow have to contend with. Seemingly an echo of this comes later: “About the same as the rest of us, I’d say,” Emily Tetherowe (Michelle Williams) utters, about the native man (Ron Rondeaux) the troupe have captured. Meek’s Cutoff isn’t exclusively about Emily, but her fiercely-thought views sparking against those of others in the camp are an integral motivation within the story. This is the mid-1800s, and not only is someone insisting that this unknown native is their equal, but a woman is doing so.
In the hands of the subdued yet purposeful style of Kelly Reichardt (the mysterious Old Joy, the melancholy Wendy and Lucy), Meek’s Cutoff is never in danger of overemphasising these social dynamics, instead playing them out with careful framing and a gradual increase in tension, cleverly achieved through the diversity of acting styles rubbing against each other. Williams as ever plays things with inward subtlety, while Paul Dano ropes Zoe Kazan into his wide-eyed hysterical dramatics and Shirley Henderson frets quietly on the edges. As the film progresses and the situation becomes ever more fractious, Reichardt directs her actors to reveal the delicate imbalances within the group, each character slowly becoming trapped in their own combustible eccentricities.
Meek’s Cutoff feels like the natural evolution of Reichardt’s attitude towards her filmmaking – it is broader than but not indistinct from her previous films, an experiment in how starkly different elements (of plot, of acting, of character) can be understood in the low-key shooting style many admire her for. Instead of simply aligning with the type of character that typifies her film, Reichardt’s approach extends the ambiguity to every character, never answering any questions we have about them and which they have about each other, and even ending at a completely unexpected, yet reflectively perfect, moment.
As she extends her canvas, her style adapts – framing things in such a way that while the sound focalises attention on one area, our eyes are, perhaps, supposed to drift to another occurrence. She rests shots and carefully manoeuvres the characters to form a sense of being inescapably in someone else’s presence, even in this vast wilderness – the travellers need each other, but simultaneously the antagonism grows. The discordant cello notes of the soundtrack accentuate all these tensions – suggesting menace, or melancholy, or merely despair, or perhaps all of these and yet more. Beyond steady, naturally evolving arcs, not least Emily’s growth into a woman who’ll tote a gun at a man, Reichardt’s project is to suggest and not explain, to craft a small world of these travellers, as fascinated and traumatised by the landscapes as the viewer becomes. Meek’s Cutoff is less a Western than a film set in the locale of a Western; it digs into the typicalities of the genre, but its digging seems natural, to unfold from the dilemmas of the characters. The cutoff of the title, if it alludes to anything beyond the obvious, is the disconnect between the characters, separating even as what happens to them necessitates tightening their pack.