You can say what you want about Kelly Reichardt, but my mind is made up; Reichardt is one of the essential American filmmakers working today, a political operative working in 16mm who could give a shit about winning hearts and minds. Instead, it is her function to describe the current condition of the American left; from the unconscious longing for an otherwise undesirable innocence in Old Joy to the punishing limits of empathetic action in Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt has created films that articulate the sense of powerlessness that has permeated our post-9/11 identity. I am almost 40 years old, progressive in my politics and deeply saddened and troubled by the world around me; for me, no American filmmaker speaks to the state of my generation like Reichardt. I consider her movies an indispensable record of this time and place, as close to a map of my own feelings as I could possibly draw myself.
Of course, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy would be nothing but rhetoric without the power of their images and narratives, and in that regard, Reichardt provides another set of thrills; her dedication to the beautiful texture of the 16mm film format, her spare use of sound (which highlights individual elements brilliantly, bringing as deep a focus to her audio as to her images) and her commitment to filming outdoors (maximizing the use of natural light) combine to create an almost physical connection between the viewer and her stories. You feel pulled into Reichardt’s movies as if being pulled back in time, to something essential (and dare I say Bressonian) that hints at the spiritual but stays deeply rooted in the physical world. In her new film, Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt (working once again from a great script by the writer Jonathan Raymond) deepens her mastery of these cinematic elements, pulling the viewer into her story while, as always, maintaining a metaphorical bridge to the immediate present.
Meek’s Cutoff is set in 1845 and tells the story of a small party of immigrants who are making the trek across the American West, to Oregon. Having hired a pithy, bullshitting guide named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to get them there, the film joins the trek just as things are starting to get desperate; Meek clearly has no idea where he is going and, as the party’s frustration mounts (and the realization of their dilemma sinks in), their decency prevents them from challenging Meek publicly, instead focusing their collective energy on the task of constantly moving forward without too much complaint. Why follow Meek? Well, there are Indians in them there hills; the specter of the unknown imposes a mute acquiescence on the party and, adrift in the Oregon High Desert, they defer to the hope that somehow, Meek will get them through. When Emily Tetherow (the perpetually outstanding Michelle Williams), Meek’s most outspoken critic, has an encounter with a Native American Cayuse man, Meek tracks him down and brings him back to the group as a prisoner. Soon, having defended the Cayuse from execution at Meek’s hand, Emily places her trust in the outsider to help them find their way to water, to safety, to hope.
Many will certainly describe Meek’s Cutoff as a Western, but it is more a reversal of that genre’s masculine excesses than a critique of its tropes; instead of a nod to, say, John Ford’s almost infinite landscapes and the rich light unleashed by the width and depth of the CinemaScope image, Reichardt frames her film within the strict confines of the 4:3 aspect ratio, surrounding the frame with the dread of the unknown. Even when we look up at the arid hills and endless, barren prairies that imprison the party, we don’t know where we’re going or where we’ve been. This is how I experienced Westerns as a kid, the drama confined to a television screen, the genre already having exhausted itself (give or take a movie here or there) in the public imagination. But by refuting the mythological implications of the genre, Reichardt breathes new life into it; all of that cowboy bravado, the casual racism, the pride of men on horseback towering physically over the women as they walk alongside the wagons, the division of labor, all of the subtle fabric of so many Westerns is restated here in a spare, matter-of-fact way that renders it ironic. There is no historic sweep in this film, no romanticism for Manifest Destiny; Emily’s world remains, like her role and her rituals, tightly circumscribed. But Emily can see through Meek’s endless supply of uniquely American bullshit, and it is her refusal to buy into his illusions that gives her the courage to act. In drawing the slow migration through the landscape so tightly, Reichardt maintains a focus on the isolation of Emily and her female companions through clever use of perspective; important conversations, held almost exclusively by the men, are staged in long shots, the sound of their voices barely audible to our ears. Even Meek’s pompous clichés (which underscore a thing’s problematic nature by enumerating how many of them there are “in Hell”) drift in and out of our attention through the film’s amazing sound design; like Emily, we are alone, in relative silence, hypnotized by the trudge across the land, left to our own thoughts, adrift and perilously close to disaster.
Which, if you’re putting two and two together (and how could you not?), is an apt description of the nation in the wake of the Bush Administration and the divisive political landscape of the Obama Presidency. Reichardt’s metaphors are clear, including the role of the Cayuse man as a cipher, the “other” through which the certainty of the community is thrown into doubt; is he the party’s hope (Obama reference intended) or is the prisoner, representative of an incomprehensible world beyond the frame, leading them to death at the hands of his tribesmen? Thankfully, like all great stories, the metaphor does not outweigh power of the narrative and as Meek’s Cutoff grows in complexity and desperation, the film becomes more and more riveting, making it impossible to pull away from Emily’s dilemma. The film ends with a stunning abdication that may not satisfy viewers looking for simple answers to complicated problems, but such is real life; Reichardt’s firm understanding of our modern condition only intensifies my connection to her stories. Meek’s Cutoff is no exception, another great film by a tremendous storyteller, another essential reckoning for the age of paralysis. Where to now?