June 22, 2011

Meek's Cutoff

Last Thursday we walked over to Brooklyn Heights Cinema, a small 2-screen movie house that's just a few blocks away from us. It's a cool place that we go to from time to time. They generally show foreign and independent films a few weeks after they open in Manhattan. Seats are comfortable, they show 35mm prints (remember those?), tickets are $10 ($8 during the week this Summer) and they have cool, less-expensive concessions. And the theater doors are adorned in leopard print!  Sadly, the sound is pretty bad - it sounds as if something has blown out. Just a few months ago, it looked like the theater was going to shut its doors, but Kenn Lowy recently took it over and has some exciting changes in store. Hopefully that will include better sound equipment. The Brooklyn Paper has a rundown of Lowy's plans, as well as a history of the theater and its past owners.

Mike: Anyway, we checked out Meek's Cutoff, the latest from indie darling Kelly Reichardt who made her breakthrough with Old Joy a few years back. I really dug Old Joy, as well as Wendy & Lucy, her 2008 film starring Michelle Williams. It's interesting to see Reichardt's progression from film to film. After the ultra-low budget Old Joy, Reichardt gained a star for her next film. In Meek's Cutoff, she's gained a handful of well-known character actors as well as a budget, apparently. Meek's Cutoff has a similar quiet, observational feel to it as Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy, but it's a western - and perhaps one of the most realistic depictions of the glamorized old west I've ever seen. I'm curious to see what kind of a film will be next.

Meek's Cutoff follows a group of settlers crossing the plains in 1845 Oregon under the guidance of an overconfident mountain man (Bruce Greenwood, barely recognizable under a long mountain man beard, plays title character Stephen Meek) who promised them a shortcut. Of course, nothing goes as planned. What makes the film really interesting is its authenticity. You see them scrubbing their dishes in the river. You see them loading their muskets. You see the flies constantly buzzing around. And you even get a good sense of how boring and uneventful life on (or in this case, off) the trail was. I have never seen this before in a western - at least not to this degree. Films like Dances With Wolves and Lonesome Dove give you a good sense of what life in the old west was like, but never has a western really shown the sweat and the grime as well as Meek's Cutoff.

Erica: I agree with you as far as the look and feel of the film. To me, it was a very slow moving film with the first few minutes containing no dialogue, just the settlers crossing a river. It really seemed to show their struggles as you see them, like you said, rinsing off dishes and washing in the river. I found the movie a bit boring, it was probably the most accurate depiction of what actually goes on that I have ever seen. It was a very unglamorous look at the life of a settler. I thought it was good for a true to life western that had some memorable performances by the ensemble cast, fronted by Michelle Williams as the strong, caring female lead.

Yeah, the cast is really impressive. Aside from Williams and Greenwood, there are excellent performances by Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson and Will Patton. Paul Dano's in there, too, although you don't see much of him. Another stand-out is Rod Rondeaux as the Indian, who the settlers encounter along the way. The bar has been raised for Native Americans in films in recent years - those simplified portrayals we saw in the past aren't acceptable, and Rondeaux's unnamed character is given depth and purpose. I should also highlight the cinematography, which is excellent, but of course the beautiful locale makes it hard not to be.

The trend in westerns in recent years has been to be gritty and violent. Meek's Cutoff isn't terribly violent but it's very gritty. You see the characters struggle along in the heat without a change of clothes for weeks, and you can almost taste the stench coming from their armpits and nether regions. So yeah, it's that kind of gritty.

Kelly Reichardt's films are an acquired taste. They are very slow and minimalistic. They are not for everyone. That's simply the state of man's attention span in this day and age. With that in mind, we cautiously recommend this film.

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