Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Austin Film Fest - "Meek's Cutoff"

Meek's Cutoff - 4.5/5

I've been having a hard time nailing down my thoughts on Kelly Reichardt's latest feature, and follow-up to "Wendy and Lucy". I liked it, a lot, dare I say it's one of the most extraordinary films I've had the privilege of seeing this year. But something about it really makes me want to see it again before I decide on how I really feel about it. In any case, since a revisit is not likely to happen again until the film gets a theatrical release in 2011, I'll offer up some impressions.

The film essentially plays out like "Oregon Trail: The Movie" at times. Anyone in my generation knows of the educational PC Game to which I am referring. Back then, we spent hours playing the game, trying to survive, doing every mundane activity from navigating a precarious river crossing to hunting for food, to searching for water. "You/person in your group has contracted typhoid fever" was a common message on screen. And really, that's a lot of what happens in this film. Many might complain that nothing ever happens, and I'm not sure I disagree with them. But this is a film about survival, and that often leads to long stretches of dialogue free, mundane vignettes of simply staying alive and staying on the trail. Minimalism like this is sometimes the death of films on a smaller scale, it can lead to very boring, flat experiences. But in this case, the mixture of indie minimalism with western genre stylings is heavenly.

The cinematography, bravely shot in 4:3 box format, it's the only western I've ever seen not shot in 16:9 widescreen. But the end result is incredible. There is not a single shot that isn't perfectly, meticulously framed in every way. it captures the harsh, barren landscape in a way that very few westerns shot in widescreen do. The below the line aspects of the film are something of a masterstroke in their own. The sound design is one of the most intricate and complex I've errr, heard all this year. Many scenes take place from the women's POV, as they sit off to the side, we can hear the men a few dozen yards away, debating the next move, but we only hear as much detail in their voices as we could if we were sitting next to the women. The brilliant use of rear and front channel sound mixing is simply amazing.

On the performance side of things, it's an ensemble cast of 8 main characters. While actors like Paul Dano and Shirley Henderson tend to feel a bit overlooked at times, Michelle Williams and Will Patton shine. I was very glad to see Williams go two for two this year at the festival. If I were a betting man, I'd say her performance in "Blue Valentine" definitely would have a 99.99% better chance of awards recognition, as it's the showier, meatier role. But she's more subtle here, due to the nature of the film. But the real star of the film needs to stand up and take a bow.

Bruce Greenwood is simply marvelous in the role of Steven Meek. He brings to the screen one of the coolest characters I've ever seen in a film. The beard, the hair, the hunter-trapper outfit, the wanderings. Everything about the performance screams method actor in an actor largely known for supporting character roles. But he sinks his teeth into the role so much that he becomes largely unrecognizable. I had a hard time deciding on whether or not it was even him at first, his voice is so different from what I've become used to hearing from him. His badass image he carries throughout the film is made all the more fascinating and tragic when in the final scene, he speaks in a manner that show just how defeated and helpless he feels in the face of uncertainty and being lost in the wilderness. If Osciloscope plays their hand right, they could easily mount a supporting actor campaign for him, along the lines of Woody Harrelson in "The Messenger" (the studio's previous film). He truly deserves it.

In a sense, such extraordinary filmmaking like this requires more than one viewing to really digest. I know I want to see it again. But it's not a film for everyone. The long stretches of silence may be too much for modern viewers bred on fast-cutting and hyper-caffeinated pacing in films. But consider me sold. If this is the kind of film, at least in style and tone, that if Kelly Reichardt wants to continue making for indie cinema, then sign me up.


Sales on Film said...

"mixture of indie minimalism with western genre stylings"


Kevin K. said...

It will be crack for you I think. Seriously, especially if you like offbeat endings that make you think.

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