Lost and Found in America:
Meek’s Cutoff

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
Kelly Reichardt’s remarkable new film isn’t a revisionist western—it’s a rediscovery of history through primitive, classical, and modern gestures. The following is a discussion of the film’s unique qualities, as well as a conversation about its making with actress Shirley Henderson.

The western that refuses to be, Meek’s Cutoff is one of those rare movies where past meets present tense. Everything is excitingly new in this bold treatment of an old Hollywood staple: long takes, wordless stretches, and robustly framed compositions the uncommon palette from which it paints the American frontier. Director Kelly Reichardt is no stranger toNew Zealand International Film Festival audiences, nor to the lingua franca of art cinema for that matter, having first won praise with Old Joy (2006), a soft-spoken road movie shot in the spare, contemplative style of what is now reductively referred to as “slow cinema”. Her real breakthrough, though, came with Wendy and Lucy (2008), a quietly devastating tale of hardship on ‘Main Street’ America with echoes of Italian social realism, New German Cinema, and Apitchatpong Weerasethakul. Coupled with Michelle Williams’s radiant performance as the film’s despairing protagonist, and the political implications of its fraught narrative, the widespread acclaim it garnered next afforded Reichardt the opportunity to film what has been described as, relatively speaking, an epic. But while Meek’s Cutoff may have demanded the means of a more conspicuous film production—its fastidious period detail, vivid costuming, cast of oxen and horses, and logistically challenging location shoot the makings of a prestige picture on any other scale—Reichardt has remained stubbornly faithful to the minimalist intimacy of the experimental Super 8 shorts and independent 16mm features she has directed, on micro budgets, over the past two decades.

Indeed, by virtue of resisting straightforward definition, Reichardt’s latest film is an utterly singular work, one that’s virtually without comparison within the realm of American revisionist westerns. At a pinch, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and ex-pat New Zealander Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford stand out as two distinctive variations on the genre from the last twenty years, however for a closer relative, both formally and metaphysically in constitution, we have to trek back to a pair of westerns made by Monte Hellman in the sixties. A cinematic hero of Reichardt’s, Hellman’s influence extends to the miniaturization of the filmmaking process (small crews are integral to her shooting method), as well as the aesthetic properties of her films, especially the character of her sound design and the meditative, sometimes abstracted quality of her images. Meek’s Cutoff certainly evokes Hellman’s Ride in the Whirlwind (1965), and in particular, The Shooting (1968), on those terms, although the relationship is more complex than a simple alignment of sensibilities or a shared existential tone. Like other new westerns that materialized in the post-studio system era, Hellman’s films straddled a line between homage and subversion, and for all The Shooting’s avant-garde reputation and loaded political underpinning (something Reichardt’s films are also know for), it has an awful lot of fun embracing, while at the same time messing with, the conventions of the genre.

Marked by bewildered characters, dubious authority figures, and a joyless frontier landscape, Meek’s Cutoff, on the contrary, seems adverse to, if not unconscious of western archetypes and mythology, as if the slate had been wiped clean before it was conceived. This is without doubt the most striking aspect of Reichardt’s film: in reaching back to the earliest days of the Old West, before the cowboy legends and celebrated outlaws of many a Hollywood script were born, a profound primitivism is achieved that imbues the journey of a lost wagon train and its untrustworthy guide with a palpable sense of the unknown. Possibly dictated by the conditions of the shoot, Reichardt’s camera is deployed more rigorously than usual, and the stark yet invigorated visuals take on an almost monumental form, where the smallest details and gestures are seen as not merely vital to the characters’ universe and survival, but epochal. On the basis of these startlingly direct images, it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that Meek’s Cutoff resembles a western channeled through Robert Bresson. Reaction to the film has reflected this impression: cinephiles have championed it accordingly; audiences not equipped for its tempo have, as with anything remotely unorthodox in the movie world, responded indifferently.

It would be a shame to pigeonhole Meek’s Cutoff as “difficult” or a “cultural vegetable” (as Dan Kois’s moronic yet well-circulated New York Times article did), for as sparse and inactive as it may appear to the naked eye, it is no more closed off to the wonders and possibilities of cinema than Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is. Summoning the erstwhile tradition of Classical Hollywood cinema, with its compactly framed vistas and close-ups in the old Academy aspect ratio, Reichardt’s film is beautiful to behold; its mesmerizing tableaux of figures passing through empty landscapes reminiscent of Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail (1930), an early western about traversing the Pacific Northwest passage. As with her previous films, Meek’s Cutoff also maintains a functional style and rhythm beneath its hardened exterior. Disciplined as they are, Reichardt’s films should never be mistaken as austere: their minimalism is pliable to the point that they can discreetly eschew the language of stationary camera angles, real-time pacing, and prolonged pauses without ever drawing attention to the fact. Reichardt has always allowed herself subtle flourishes as an otherwise down-to-earth filmmaker, not to mention a serene, folksy approach to sound and image that’s evident in the lovely colours and textures of her movies—Meek’s Cutoff the most exquisitely rendered of them all. One only needs to marvel at the sublime opening sequence—where a shot of the wagon party crossing a river elegantly dissolves into a distant view of the settlers on the horizon, the compositions and hues perfectly matched as Jeff Grace’s sonorous score rises on the soundtrack—to recognize in Reichardt’s artform a sensuousness that works in tandem with formal precision. By no means “pleasureless”, as The New Yorker’s film critic wrote, Meek’s Cutoff is an endlessly astonishing work with much to discover and even more to think about after its hand-quilted end credits have rolled.

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Co-opting the tale of Stephen Meek—an incompetent mountain man hired to guide a small company of pioneers across the Oregon Trail in 1845—Reichardt’s version of events, as scripted by her regular collaborator, Jon Raymond, does include a “Cowboy” (as in the titular leader who steers the convoy astray, played by Bruce Greenwood) and an “Indian” (Rod Rondeaux, who may know the way across the trail, if he can be trusted), however in keeping with the notion of an unwritten history, is more invested in the struggle of its female emigrants. Of the three families embarking on the expedition, it is predictably Michelle Williams’s character, Emily Tetherow, and her husband Solomon (Will Patton), who assert themselves when Meek’s reliability is called into question. In one staggering scene, Williams wields—and, in what feels like an eternity—loads and discharges a musket to ward off a potential Indian attack, and the actress is ideally suited to the strong-willed, essentially feminist role. At the other end of the ledger, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan represent the group’s outwardly fearful couple, whose paranoia escalates when it becomes unclear whether the Indian they’ve chosen to follow will escort them to water, or blood thirsty savages. Cowering on a rock, petrified at the sight of Emily mending the Indian’s frayed moccasins, Kazan provides another of the film’s lasting images: eyes wide with panic, her bonnet swollen in the desert wind, she mimics a frightened reptile paralyzed by the threat of the foreign.

The middle family, portrayed by Shirley Henderson and Neal Huff, is a devout couple with a young son (Tommy Nelson). The most interesting of the female leads, Henderson emerges as a firm anchor point for Reichardt to balance the artful, if obvious symbolism couched in the opposing couples on either side of her character. As Glory White, Henderson is the least outspoken voice in the film, and yet because of this, its emotional core, and there’s a clear sense of Reichardt’s edits orbiting around still moments with Mrs. White captured in quiet sadness, reflection, or stoicism. In conversation, via telephone, with Henderson from her home in Glasgow, I was intrigued to learn that the presence of the character was largely established on her own terms. “Kelly never really told me what to do at all,” she was quick to clarify. “Her thing is that she trusts who she has cast, that you will come up with what she wants, and my initial discussion with her was that I felt with Mrs. White, there was a reserve there. She’s trying to look after herself; she’s looking after a wee boy and her husband; she’s religious. She wanted me to be British, so she’s obviously traveled very far from whatever background she’s left. And she didn’t have a strong voice—it was spasmodic—and there would be strange little things that she would say. So therefore I felt she wasn’t a loud, shouty character. She wasn’t walking about with a gun or anything like that. She was quietly in the background.”

Instinctively, Henderson’s performance is also graded towards the mood and tone of Reichardt’s cinema, and her attentive depiction of the character mirrors the distant, passive, inwardly sensitive temperament of the filmmaking. Often, it is Henderson we see, framed alone, silently consumed by the domestic tasks that Reichardt is keen to emphasise as a facet of her plain realism—inspired, in part, by the labour-intensive vignettes of Nanook of the North. But far from being limited to the role of hushed observer, Henderson gives us two of the most achingly beautiful scenes in the film. Illuminated by the faint glow of a campfire, Glory’s recollection of her “father’s pigs back home in their pen” is one such memorable whisper—a scene that Henderson said was exceptionally hard and determined as much by the environment as the script itself. “We were absolutely frozen, shaking with the cold. And the atmosphere just dictated how we acted that night. I could hardly keep my body still from the tiredness and the cold. There were coyotes all around, you could hear them howling. It was just a very strange atmosphere.” Fighting the elements, the essence of the scene was retained. “It had to be tender. It had to be a little bit about what’s been going on with Mrs. White all this time, what she has been thinking about. But nothing to indulge the audience, or to let them see my heart breaking. There was some crying, but Kelly likes to pull away from that, likes to disappear and look at somebody else, and then come back to the person. I liked what she did with it very much.”

Another scene involves Henderson chasing after a hat swept up in a sandstorm. It’s a gorgeous, all-too-fleeting anecdote that speaks of the wider journey on a whole: the concession to nature and the overpowering, routeless wilderness that both traveler and audience must surrender to. As with the campfire scene, it was born from a spontaneous reaction to the surroundings. “I didn’t even know Kelly was going to ask me to do that,” Henderson explained. “It was so windy and dusty. You could hardly keep your eyes open. I think by accident a hat actually blew off at one point, and it must’ve triggered a thought. Mrs. White running after it—she’s not the one you would imagine doing it! [Being heavily pregnant] However, everybody else had gone, and Kelly asked me to run around a bit. And it was really blowing, there was no wind machine or anything.” It’s not the first time Henderson has found herself elevated, unknowingly, to a grace note in a film’s composition: in Mike Leigh’s splendid Topsy-Turvy (1999), a movie which for the majority of its duration is focused on the artistic collaboration between musical theatre duo Gilbert and Sullivan, it is Henderson who steals the show in its final act with a solo rendition of The Mikado’s ‘The Sun Whose Rays’. It’s a shimming yet mournful conclusion that Henderson was entirely unaware would end the film, and in such a satisfying fashion too.

Diminutive in stature, but impossible to miss on screen, Henderson’s acting has moved steadily along since the success of Topsy-Turvy, where her character, Leonara Braham, prophetically joked that she had been cast to play a 14-year-old. Henderson’s place in the Harry Potter canon as Moaning Myrtle deserves no more than a footnote mention though, for it would be unjust to overlook the indelible ‘adult’ roles, many for accomplished filmmakers, of a varied and rewarding career thus far: as Debbie, a carefree single mother in Wonderland (1999), the first of an ongoing association with Michael Winterbottom (including the upcoming Seven Days, which she stars in); as the cleaner in Sally Potter’s Yes (2004), a role spoken in iambic pentameter that was delivered with delicious gusto; and more recently, an inheritance of Jane Adams’s hippie-wallflower from Happiness in Todd Solandz’s Life During Wartime (2009), which she is excellent in alongside a superb ensemble cast. Alternating effortlessly between adorable love interest (Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself), BBC costume drama mainstay (The Way We Live Now, The Crimson Petal and the White), and manic personality (Dirty Filthy Love, Taming of the Shrew), Henderson is very much the epitome of a character actor, and speaking to her, I get the impression that she is perfectly content as a jobbing actress out of the limelight, irrepressible as she is.

Reichardt, who holds down a ‘day job’ as a visiting professor of film at New York’s Bard College, once defined the “pinnacle” of her art as standing in a field with friends making an art project, and Meek’s Cutoff unquestionably adheres to that ideal, albeit on a slightly larger scale. When the subject was again broached at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Reichardt’s conviction as an artist seemed stronger than ever. “I don’t have those skills, and I don’t have the temperament for it,” she rebutted when queried as to why she wasn’t making films of bigger size and budget. “We are constantly thinking about how to do it smaller. I want to edit myself. I don’t want anyone to look at my cuts. I barely can stand taking notes, except from my ten friends that I’ve been showing films to for the last twenty years.” Despite the weather, the animals, the costumes, and the four-hour round trip that had to be contended with—factors that would usually hinder a project or change its dimensions—what’s impressive about Meek’s Cutoff is its resolute independence as a production, one sans creative compromise or interference. For Henderson, the freedom of the experience had its own unique rewards. “I loved the landscape, the vastness,” she told me. “The exposure that we felt, the enormity of where we were.” The extremities of Oregon’s Cascade Mountains affected her immensely. “I had never seen stars and skies like that before. I live in Scotland, where there’s amazing scenery, but this was very different looking. It moved me very much.” The spirit of the film shoot also stuck with her. “I very much enjoyed the close feeling of us working together. We had no luxury whatsoever. You couldn’t go away and have your own space because there were snakes. You couldn’t just wander away for half a night. You’re with each other, and you don’t have your own caravans or anything. You’re permanently with the same people. It was lovely.”

Political content has always bubbled close to the surface of Reichardt’s films, visible through the quotidian existence of her characters. In Meek’s Cutoff, it takes the form of allegory, and less potently so. But that the parable of Stephen Meek, as an inadequate and duplicitous leader in the vein of George W. Bush, is the least stimulating angle from which to read the narrative is what makes Meek’s Cutoff as challenging cerebrally, as it is cinematically. It’s a thought-provoking odyssey informed on one level by the political climate of our era (“Is he ignorant, or is he just plain evil?” says one character; “We’re not lost. We’re just finding our way,” retorts Meek, in the rhetoric of a guilty politician), yet on another, is deeply and relevantly engaged in perspectives forgotten by history. Reichardt’s film has plenty to say about racism, xenophobia, and conflict as it reconsiders the period from the vantage point of silenced women, graphically conveyed by the bonnets that the wives wear, obscuring both our view and theirs. These things in mind, it’s impractical to discuss Meek’s Cutoff without thinking of it in relation to the western, as loath as Reichardt would be to accept that. However, when I put the question to Henderson if she regarded the film as an alt-western, anti-western, feminist western, or community western, as others have labeled it, she had a perfectly succinct response. “It’s a pre-western,” she replied. “My memory is of how we made it, of a journey of a few families, of a very small look at a time in their lives. To me it’s about the people, before everyone had guns, before everyone was in towns, in the very beginning. Therefore, I don’t really think of it as a western, but I’m happy if people do.”

Meek’s Cutoff is proudly sponsored by The Lumière Reader at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2011. It screens in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin. For dates, programme details, and screenings in all other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.