This is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and I’ve just seen it for the second time in two weeks: Meek’s Cutoff, a quiet, low-energy, minimalist Western from indie director Kelly Reichardt. Although set in 1845, it could have been made in 1975, such is the unshowy, realistic, grainy, mumbly modus operandi. Not much happens. But what does happen is pregnant with symbolism and myth, and the dialogue – by Reichardt’s constant collaborator Jon Raymond – is so carefully chosen in a film with huge chunks of wordlessness and recorded in such a natural way that you need to see it twice to really get your ears round it. (Not that I’m recommending you pay to see a film twice. When I was hosting Back Row on Radio 4, I fairly light-heartedly suggested people should see Mulholland Drive twice because it’s so difficult to understand on first viewing, and a listener complained to Feedback, accusing me of being in the pay of the film company! What a twat.)
I haven’t seen Reichardt’s previous two films, so I’m coming to her style cold, but I love it. This is my kind of film. Such an inspired idea to break down the whole history and mythology of the Old West to the tale of three families in three wagons who’ve broken away from the Oregon Trail to take a short-cut – or cutoff – at the behest of their grizzly guide Meek (Bruce Greenwood – John F Kennedy in Thirteen Days). They are lost. Early on, we see one of the husbands (Paul Dano), carving the word “LOST” into some tree bark. Their despair builds as the story progresses, and the arrival of an Indian (Ron Rondeaux) adds further tension, when Meek would have him killed, while the others, most vocally the wise old widower Solomon (Will Patton), think he will help them find water. The Indian – no more than a “heathen” and a “savage” to the unreconstructed mountain man Meek – is in touch with the landscape, and he too scratches something into the rocks, albeit something more pictorial and possibly more meaningful than a single word like “LOST.” (Ironically the paranoid pioneers later worry that the Indian is leaving “signals” with his drawings; what was Dano’s character doing but leaving a “signal”?) Oh, and yes, the Biblical imagery is clear – Solomon isn’t called that for nothing, although the Promised Land looks increasingly unattainable in this exodus by God-fearing folk.
It’s not new to see American pioneers come face to face with a native soul – the occupier thrown together with the occupied; civilisation meets pre-civilisation – but Meek’s Cutoff spends so much time carefully and precisely setting the scene, describing the landscape and dropping us right into the dust and drudgery of everyday life on the road (one of the wives complains that the women are “working like niggers” at one point, laying wide open the inherent hypocrisy of the white man’s racism), the moments of familiarity from previous Westerns are few and far between. This is a slow piece. It moves at the same arduously gradual pace of the wagons themselves, the constantly squeaking wheel of one announcing their progress throughout, and it is this empathy with the characters’ plight, forced upon us through sheer attention to detail, that makes the film. You can feel the dust, smell the sweat, and eventually start to wilt from the hours each day they spend trudging through the desert. (I had a bottle of water with me; I nearly drank it all.)
One oddity. The film is shot in “Academy ratio”, ie. 1.375:1 – which is almost square and was the industry standard before the Widescreen boom in the 1950s. This seems self-defeating when the Oregon landscape is such an integral part of the film. I don’t know why Reichardt chose it. Maybe somebody out there knows? Meek’s Cutoff still looks stunning – there are a couple of very slow dissolves that are pure artistry – and you forget about the ratio after a while, but I couldn’t help feel I was missing something out in those wide open spaces.
It was a particularly fine choice to see at the Curzon again this afternoon in order to avoid the pomp and circumstance of the Royal Wedding. There were a few other republicans in there, and only one of them used his phone, once, to read a text, whose alert (luckily muffled by being inside his rucksack) actually came at about the worst time it could have done in terms of onscreen tension. Well done, that man.