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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Meek’s Cutoff

  Meek’s Cutoff (Three and a Half Stars)

U. S.: Kelly Reichardt, 2011

Meek’s Cutoff, like the Coen Brothers’ True Grit, is an art film Western for a contemporary audience, and an unusually good one — made by a director and writer (Kelly Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond), who show a real feeling for what it must have been like to cross the American western plains along or near the Oregon Trail, westward toward California, in frontier times, mostly without maps or guideposts, and apparently without the U.S. Cavalry to come riding to the rescue.

The movie takes place in 1845, when the West was not yet won, and when in real life, a much larger wagon train wended its way along the Oregon Trail, and split into two groups — one of which continued on, guided by Meek.

 In the movie, the splinter group gets lost (which happened in real life) and — or so Raymond and Reichardt imagine here — they capture a Native American who speaks no English (Rod Rondeaux). As supplies grow short and water begins to run out, and as the ox-drawn wagons seem more and more fragile, some of the travelers want to kill their captive, whom they suspect of guiding them toward an ambush. Emily, who no longer trusts Meek (she‘s not alone) wants to save the Indian, and trusts that he will guide them to a water hole.

That’s the story: Will the Native American save these pioneer-interlopers, or not? There’s genuine drama and mystery in the question, because there is an element of truth here, because the film’s unusual style keeps undermining our expectations — and because the Meek‘s Cutoff episode, though at least partly historical, is not really familiar history.

 Reichardt’s movie, based largely on fact, is executed without theatrics or pumped-up drama. The men of the train are often shaggy and trail-worn; the women wear no makeup and bonnets that hide their faces. The trailmaster/guide (Bruce Greenwood as Stephen Meek) is a bearded blowhard. There‘s a solitary Indian (Rondeaux) and he speaks no English and is, for the travelers, an utter cipher.

But the drama and the terror are there, in every eerie and unhurried long shot of the three wagons (this is a minimalist wagon train) edging their way through the unpopulated wilderness, surrounded by an empty landscape and covered by a burning sky. This is a Western that attempts to imagine the West as it was, or in some ways to craft a counter-myth, a balance to the movie myths we know.

 It works. Reichardt and Raymond (who also collaborated on those two modern Oregon-set movies, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy) largely succeed in convincing us that their world is real, or as John Ford was fond of saying, “the way it happened” — even though this is the first Reichardt movie that boasts a cast well-known to moviegoers: not just Michelle Williams (who stars both here and in Wendy and Lucy) as Emily Tetherow, and Greenwood as Meek, but Will Patton as Emily‘s husband Soloman, and Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson among their wagon train companions, the Gatelys and the Whites.

Many of these faces are familiar, but they’re not glamorized. Often, thanks to the bonnets and beards and the absence of close-ups, we can barely recognize them. They’re all good though, and Williams, Patton, Rondeaux and Greenwood are often wonderful.

 Meek’s Cutoff has been compared repeatedly to Terrence Malick‘s films, high praise since a rare, new (and brilliant) Malick picture, The Tree of Life, is now gloriously on our screens. In mood and approach, Meek is a bit reminiscent of Malick — though this work, more modestly scaled (and budgeted),  falls short of  Malick’s sometimes overwhelming spectacle and lyricism, and though Malick’s own “Westerns” have been more modern (Badlands and Days of Heaven) or even more Eastern. (A New Land, like Ford’s pre-Revolutionary War-era movie Drums Along the Mohawk, “reads” like a Western.)

Ever since River of Grass in 1994, Kelly Reichardt has been one of the mainstays and prime artists of American independent moviemaking. She’s at her best here. From the moment in the beginning when we see the wagons ford a river, clumsily and soggily (and without the glorious imagery of the river crossing in Wagon Master), she and her team fashion and record this old/new world with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of pure, hard vision and honesty.

Still, even though Meek’s Cutoff may seem like a change-the-rules revisionist western, it’s also made with a sure knowledge of what  attracts us to the genre, and why, for such a long time, the movie Western was able to keep endlessly reinventing itself — and may be reinventing itself again. Here, in Reichardt’s and Raymond‘s hands, and in the hands of their fine, unselfish, and far-from-vain cast, the Western certainly seems alive again.

 Not everyone will like Meek‘s Cutoff, if course; not all viewers will have the patience for it. But it’s a haunting, perceptive, sometimes lovely little movie. If you’re a truly adventurous buff, try to see it. Go West…

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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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