Two equally cool, contemplative and plot-neutral films – ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ and Sofia Coppola’s ‘Somewhere’ – competed for the Golden Lion. One was universally lauded and touted as the surefire winner. The other was dismissed as shallow, self-regarding and meaningless. And the wrong film won.
The sheer gulf of quality and intention between these two superficially similar films couldn’t be wider. The ‘cinema of nothing’ that both Reichardt and Coppola practice may be currently in vogue, but their approaches to it differ wildly: where Coppola uses the camera to reflect her own celebrity-centric interests, Reichardt’s gaze is firmly fixed on the outside world, and particularly on those poor souls who have lost their place within it.
‘Meek’s Cutoff’ is a western, but it’s like no horse opera you’ve ever seen. Michelle Williams plays Emily, one of a small band of settlers wagon-training west, keeping their eyes peeled for Indian raiders. But with supplies dwindling and tough-talking guide Meek (Bruce Greenwood) looking increasingly out of his depth, the group reluctantly turn to a captured Cayuse warrior (Rod Rondeaux) for guidance.
Employing the same stylistic restraint and sense of inexorably mounting tension she perfected in ‘Old Joy’ and the heartbreaking ‘Wendy and Lucy’, Reichardt creates a mood which is at once entirely believable and entrancingly otherwordly. The period trappings, sparse dialogue and hard-bitten performances feel utterly credible: from the long, wordless opening scene of the settlers lugging their possessions across a shallow river, ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ feels like a sepia-toned snapshot of a bygone era.
And yet, in the emptiness and endlessness of the landscape and in the sheer helplessness of its few inhabitants, there’s a disconnect from modern reality which is powerfully unsettling. Comparisons could be drawn with the opening act of ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’, but Reichardt‘s vision has little of the beauty and all of the threat: where Peter Weir relied on camera trickery and a haunting score to create a sense of nature’s implacability, Reichardt is a staunch realist, shooting straight and letting the setting and the situation speak for themselves.
The result is bold, unrelenting and wilfully oblique, perhaps to a fault: Reichardt’s refusal to provide easy solutions may be thematically appropriate, but it can be alienating. Nonetheless, ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ is one of 2011’s singular cinematic experiences: subtle, simple and devastating. Saddle up.