Still courtesy of TIFF.
If one theme has emerged out of TIFF 2010, it’s films from fringe filmmakers being acclaimed as their most accessible to date. It happened with Côté’s Curling, it was the word on Apichatpong’s Uncle Boonmee after Cannes, and it’s bound to crop up again around Kelly Reichardt’s period Western Meek’s Cutoff. True, Meek’s boasts considerable star power (because Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, and Paul Dano are all super famous), but it still hews comfortably close to the placid pacing and depthless beauty of previous Reichardt features, like Old Joy and the exquisite Wendy and Lucy.
From the opening frame—firmly contained in the now outmoded 1.35:1 aspect ratio—Meek’s defies the typical widescreen vistas of most Westerns. You won’t see the sweeping scopes of John Ford, nor will you find any classical hero worship (nor any of the deconstructionist hero takedowns of more contemporary revisionist Westerns). Set in the mid-nineteenth century, Meek’s picks up well into the ill-advised westward expedition of a group of wagoneers who have splintered from the Oregon Trail. Led by the willful, and quite possibly mad, Stephen Meek (Greenwood), these pioneers struggle to fend off starvation, dehydration, and the fear of what lies beyond the next hilly breach in the endless horizon.
Desperate, the group captures a lone native (Rod Rondeaux) in hopes that he will lead them to a water source. The ensuing communication breakdown adds another wildcard to their party, while giving life to the anxieties inherent in early American-aboriginal relations. Though a costume drama is fresh terrain for Reichardt, she uses the genre trappings to expertly explore man’s (and, more pointedly, woman’s) relationship with nature, and the measures of life at the far reaches of our geographical and psychological frontiers.
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