Kelly Reichardt / USA / 2010
Indie wanderer Kelly Reichardt takes a visual detour - but thankfully not a rhythmic one - in this historical drama based on the Oregon Trail. But in common with Reichardtís often murmuring approach to filmmaking, in some senses this is a more justified, sane version of the Gus Van Sant film, Gerry. Here are characters Ė prospectors - who have a firm reason for being wordlessly lost in the wilderness.
Based around the letters of the prospectors who actually travelled along the original Oregon Trail, the title of the film refers to a short-cut sought and found by one Stephen Meek in the 1840s. Minimising the original party of hundreds of wagons down to a much more manageable handful, three families hire Meek to take them across the desert with calamitous results. Gradually the water runs out and the arguments grow in force accordingly.
Reichardtís contemplative approach to filmmaking really gets you inside the minds of these people. Unlike the hike in Old Joy or the homeless wandering in Wendy & Lucy, the decisions the characters make in Meekís Cutoff will actually kill them if they get them wrong. So the progression through these three films from pleasure walk, to drifter to economic migrants is palpable and something to relish.
After Reichardtís two previous films the main difference that strikes the viewer is the desiccated palette, a tonal change from the rainy Pacific North-West to the Oregon dessert. Where her earlier films have plenty of trees and green here the colours are all dry rusty browns as the quite-possibly doomed prospectors take a detour and end up scrabbling around for water.
Given few words by the script the actors mostly endure the hardships along the way, notably Michelle Williams as a young wife who takes exception to Meekís (Bruce Greenwood) excesses. They donít say very much but they have plenty to do - and plenty comes out - as they ford rivers (memorably holding a canary aloft), or cope with hijacking an indian and debating what to do with him. With the dialogue emerging in snatches a vivid picture of mostly good souls having to make tough decisions emerges. Nothing illustrates the pit theyíre all in better than the constant votes the party takes over what to next. Naturally these junctures lead nowhere but further away from fresh water.
Michelle Williams and Bruce Greewood are given plenty to keep them occupied and nobody does stoic quite like Shirley Henderson. But after a couple of barnstorming performances itís a shame that Paul Dano has such a cowering role here. The quandary Meekís Cutoff presents is whether heís less of an actor than we thought he was or whether heís actually playing the character as written.
Itís unclear but it's one reason why this film simply canít quite flash its flair with the dynamite trio of Western themed US films from 2007 - There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James and No Country for Old Men. Reichardt gradually builds up quiet characters with problems and here she uses both an epic backdrop and life and death themes as the canvas. Naturally they all get lost, although this is clearly very intentional on the directorís part. Stylistically though itís a close thing - Westerns or historical films arenít commonly like this or as good.