Lost in America

By Ponsoldt, James | Filmmaker, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Lost in America


Ponsoldt, James, Filmmaker


Kelly Reichardt reteams with Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff, the true story of a team of misbegotten American settlers lost along the Oregon Trail.

Before you see the first image of Meek's Cutoff, you hear the film. Simultaneously swelling is the whoosh of rushing water and Jeff Grace's unnerving, anxious score, which sounds like strings on guitar played backwards. Imagine a rusty fence gate slowly opening. That's your invitation to the film.

Then a title card - hand-stitched on what looks like the potato-sack material used to cover a wagon - announces that we're in Oregon, and the year: 1845.

This happens quickly, in less than 20 seconds, but by the time the first image fades in on a man leading two oxen and a wagon through a river in glorious, colorful 1.37 "Academy" ratio film (a square, not a wide-screen rectangle), there's already a claustrophobic tension, and you know Meek's Cutoff won't be your father or even grandfather's Western.

There's a crisis, and there will be no easy resolution.

This statement describes each of the features Kelly Reichardt has directed. Since Old Joy premiered at Sundance in 2006, she has managed to add a chapter to her continuing exploration of America - through the lens of the Pacific Northwest - every two years (with Wendy and Lucy in 2008 followed by Meek's Cutoff, which premiered in 2010 at the Venice Film Festival). Each of these stories, created with Reichardt's writing collaborator Jonathan Raymond, follows travelers: disenfranchised outsiders, people trying to move on and having trouble reaching their destination.

The three films complement each other, yet each one feels fully realized and unique. As a viewer, I couldn't help but hope that in some alternate film universe the sad-eyed Kurt (Will Oldham) from Old Joy would find Wendy (Michelle Williams) from Wendy and Lucy and they might stop each other's drifting, try to save each other; become new partners.

Reichardt's films are often labeled "minimal," though a more appropriate term might be: specific. An incredibly thoughtful director, Reichardt's camera framing is always precise and the score and sound design are pitch-perfect (she works with Leslie Shatz, the longtime sound designer of Gus Van Sant's films). She's able to tell her stories elegantly with simple images, dexterously hiding the incongruities of image, sound and story to create a dense cinematic experience. Reichardt's choices aren't accidental, they're subtly idiosyncratic, and the net effect is that these films leave a wake behind them. They stay with you. They might even haunt you.

Meeks's Cutoff follows a small, westwardmoving wagon train of three couples and a child being led, perhaps astray, through 1840s Oregon by a charismatic leader, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Meek is larger than life, deflecting questions about his navigation and leadership by keeping the settlers in a state of constant fear with his big stories about vicious Indians.

While the ladies of the group sit in a sewing circle, the long-bearded Meek articulates his primitive worldview: "Women are created on the principle of chaos...men are created on the principle of destruction."

The group's de facto leader - Emily Tetherow, played with strength and tight-lipped intelligence by Michelle Williams -grows increasingly skeptical of everything that comes from Meek's mouth. At one point she wonders aloud: "Is he ignorant, or is he just evil?"

Meek increasingly becomes a Rorschach test, resembling a number of leaders, elected and otherwise, we might all know. Meek's very existence begs the question: Can nations expand without violence - and violent men?

By the time an actual Cayuse Indian (remarkably acted by Rod Rondeaux) is captured, bound and beaten, abstract terror and tall tales must be reconciled with a simple fect: These settlers are lost, and they're no longer in a country they recognize as their own. …

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