Thursday, May 19, 2011

Fear and Loathing on the Oregon Trail

There are a handful of reasons why Meek's Cutoff has attracted a trifle bit more attention than the average indie release.  Most notably, it's a Western, which in the current cinematic climate is like being the albino buffalo in the herd.  It also boasts a pedigree of indie film royalty, with a cast including Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Shirley Henderson and the belle of the low-budget ball herself, Michelle Williams, who re-teams with director Kelly Reichardt after their critically lauded collaboration, Wendy and Lucy.  Notice that Williams takes the central role and, well, do the math from here, that makes Meek's Cutoff a female driven Western, albeit one that's low on dialogue and high on ensemble.  The results may bore casual viewers, or even offend fans of the genre's classic entries, but one could make the argument that Reichardt's film is a milestone for Westerns much in the same way McCabe and Mrs. Miller was forty years ago.

I don't know that I'd go quite that far.  Meek's Cutoff arrives in a year where female protagonists have taken almost as many beatings as they've given, but it plays out in a genre that practically doesn't exist anymore, and could make its point in a quieter way.  That sounds like a complaint, but it's actually a great strength of the film, and I wouldn't dream of holding against it all the problems in Hollywood it will fail to right.  What I love most about the film is the way it gradually assumes the female gaze, taking root early on as the important conversations of menfolk are observed at length from the road-weary wives.  Halfway through, William's character Emily has slid comfortably into the protagonist role, at one point even holding a gun to the titular Meek, the rugged, cocksure, and slightly bamboozled symbol of manliness in an outmoded genre.  The end, in one of those gloriously vague parting notes that will take some viewers time to come to terms with, is essentially a passing of the baton, and while it won't satisfy those looking for old western thrills, it perfectly fulfills the narrative Reichardt sets out to tell.

I suppose I can muster some sympathy for those seeking more excitement.  The stakes in Meek's Cutoff are clearly high, but I don't think they're raised sufficiently throughout the course of the film.  Fear exists in many shades on a trek across the Great Plains, but while Reichardt does a superb job establishing the dreaded threat of Indian attack, the cruel indifference of nature rarely resonates like it should.  But this is a minimalist Western, and since I did my homework, that's exactly what I went in braced for.  The nine characters of the film might as well exist in their own universe, and even the slightest hints of civilization are nowhere to be seen.  The barren screen still leaves a few things to marvel at, such as the postcard-worthy photography and lively costume design, but this is a film defined at first-glance by its pace.  If the thought of that turns you off, though, consider for a moment the second-glance, which through inverting the gaze of classic Westerns, has something valuable to offer cinema in 2011.

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