The Western once dominated the American film industry, and the decline of the genre speaks volumes about the shift of the American myth. The last few decades have been dominated by revisionist takes on the Old West, from Dances with Wolves, TV’s Deadwood and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) takes us boldly where few have gone before, proving that not everything that happened in the West happened at high noon or the OK Corral.
It’s 1845, and a group of families are travelling across the Oregon desert in the northwest USA. Ostensibly guided by the rugged frontiersman Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, Super 8), the painful journey of a group of settlers heading West sees frustrations mount as it becomes increasingly obvious that they are lost. Praire wife Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine) doesn’t trust Meek, and the conflicts begin to come to a head when they encounter a lone Indian (stuntman Rod Rondeaux) who agrees to lead them to water. Can either man be trusted?
Taking a leaf out of Terrence Malick’s book, Reichardt’s long takes and Chris Blauvelt’s skilled cinematography dictates the pace of the journey, giving us an experiential view of this epic voyage. Startlingly, Reichardt reminds us that the story of ordinary women (enduring extraordinary hardships) in this landscape has rarely been told on screen, and that the lives of these women were wholly entrusted to men by virtue of their gender. Reichardt reunites with Wendy and Lucy star Williams, she is joined by the equally gifted Shirley Henderson (who we last saw in SFF2010’s Life During Wartime) and Zoe Kazan (Revolutionary Road).
Some may find the particular pace of the film frustrating, but the ambiguous lack of easy answers is the antithesis of modern filmmaking. In a genre that is as old as the medium itself, that Reichardt has not only found an original story but a unique way of tell it is a small miracle.
Do not adjust your sets. In a callback to the western films that inspired it, Meek’s Cutoff was shot in the old Academy ratio and represented here by a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Where latter-day Westerns have made full use of the landscape in stunning widescreen, certainly in the post-Sergio Leone school of filmmaking, Reichardt uses the ratio to make this same landscape claustrophobic. In many ways, the home format is the ideal place to see Meek’s Cutoff, but the journey is best shared with a group of people. You can also purchase the pristine Blu-ray (featured right) from the US.
Making of Meek (9:38) follows the feel of the film itself, and rather than giving us ten minutes of talking heads babbling on about how wonderful it was to work on such a unique experience, we actually watch the production of the film via a fly-on-the-wall.
Meek’s Cutoff was released on DVD in Australia on 5 October 2011 from Madman. US readers can purchase the film on Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon.