17 April 2011
That, ladies and gentlemen, was the best film I have seen all year.
Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to her patchy but watchable Wendy and Lucy sees the star of that film, the ever-reliable Michelle Williams, return as the tough, stoic Emily Tetherow - a non-showy strong female character you rarely see in films, delivered by a wonderful performance.
A group of pioneers veer off the Oregon Trail with the promise of a short cut by a dubious-looking, dubious-talking guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood in a performance that could easily have turned into a laughing stock but manages to be quite brilliant). Despite Meek’s insistence that he knows the land like the back of his hand, our pioneers soon find themselves in arid land, with no sign of water or life.
Growing increasingly impatient and desperate, Will Patton (Salomon Tetherow, Emily’s soft-spoken husband) takes the reins in his own hands, to the chagrin and constant irritation of Meek. Things then take an even more desperate and interesting turn when they come across a Native American - unable to communicate or understand him, the group’s desperate situation is further exacerbated by the uncertainty of the newcomer slowly taking the leadership role almost by default.
What should they do with him? Will he lead them to water, or to an imminent skinning “in the hands of the heathens”?
Shot in a disorientating 1.33 aspect ratio, Reichardt’s film looks and feels different from any Western you may have seen - the lack of horizontal expanse is offset by a depth of vision that further emphasises the futility of the pioneers’ endeavour. A land devoid of life and hope lies over those hills.
The look and feel of the film is very reminiscent of Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven: lush autumnal colours, the nerve-racking squeal of the wagon wheels, the wind-powered soundtrack (further enhanced by a creepy score by Jeff Grace), and a barely heard or discerned dialogue, create an incredibly tense viewing. With slight nods to both Michelangelo Antonioni and Sergio Leone, it manages to go beyond an homage to Westerns of the days of old and become a deserving entry to the cannon.
As Jonathan Raymond’s script goes in the deepest recesses of subtle surreality, my heart was pounding off my chest toward an ending that punches you in the gut with a stroke-that-never-was. Depending on which camp you belong to when it comes to how the recent Coen Brothers films have ended, you will either leave the cinema with your jaw in your hand or extremely frustrated by an ending that is neither resolved, nor left open (or, more precisely, never explained but just shown). It’s as if Reichardt and Raymond just let it fly away with the wind.
Bolstered by an impressive supporting cast that includes Paul Dano and Shirley Henderson, Meek’s Cutoff is by far and away the most impressive film I have seen this year and it will be a tough one to match. Highly recommended.