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The West wasn’t all cowboys and Indians and shoot-outs at the OK Corral, insists Meek’s Cutoff, a realistic slice of pioneer life that offers a disquieting alternative vision of America’s most mythic location. In place of violence, director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy) underlines the harshness and monotony of a long journey by covered wagon. The film’s refusal to spectacularize the emigrants’ hardships, as well as the story’s lack of a clear beginning or end, signal major difficulties driving this wagon train beyond the festival circuit, where its pleasing low-key quality that should earn it accolades.
The film is based on a real story from the American West. The time is 1845, and three families have chosen to leave a larger wagon train on the Oregon Trail to set out on their own with a hired guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), over the Cascade Mountains. The film starts five weeks into their march across the high plain desert, circling around without even sighting mountains and running out of food and water fast. They have concluded Meek doesn’t know the way, or perhaps has deliberately lead them off the path for reasons of his own.
Lost in the middle of nowhere, the emigrants start to doubt each other. It is at this point that they capture a lone Indian (Rod Rondeaux), their natural “enemy”, but who in reality may (or may not) become their guide and saviour.
Of the nine characters in the film, only the three women emerge clearly. The men, even the flamboyant braggart Meek and the scowling, enigmatic Indian, never come into focus. Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain) creates a true heroine in Emily Tetherow, a young wife whose strong character leads her to protect the captive against Meek’s racist fury. Scottish actress Shirley Henderson (of Bridget Jones fame) is haunted by memories of her father’s pigs and how comfortable their lives were compared to her own. Zoe Kazan (The Exploding Girl) is memorable as a young wife frightened to the point of racist hysteria.
From the first shot of the narrow, ox-drawn wagons wobbling across the interminable desert, the absence of Widescreen is felt like a punishment. Reichardt’s unintuitive choice to shoot the film in an almost square TV-size format gives the immense wide open spaces of the West an uncomfortable claustrophobia, adding to a foreboding atmosphere that pervades the trek.
The clash of civilizations competing for the same land — the Native Americans and the encroaching colonists, who aspire to have the territory declared as part of America — is a principal theme here, worked out in a subtly modern, progressive key. Missing is a touch of John Ford‘s warmth and humor.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Evenstar Films, Filmscience, Harmony Productions/Primitive Nerd
Cast: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Rod Rondeaux, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Screenwriter: Jon Raymond
Executive producers: Todd Haynes, Phil Morrison, Rajen Savjani, Andrew Pope, Steven Tuttleman, Laura Rosenthal, Mike S. Ryan
Producers: Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani, Elizabeth Cuthrell, David Urrutia
Director of photography: Christopher Blauvelt
Production designer: David Doernberg
Music: Jeff Grace
Costumes: Vicki Farrell
Editor: Kelly Reichardt
Sales Agent: Cinetic Media
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