Director Kelly Reichardt has taken the last few years to quietly establish herself as one of the most subtle and relevant filmmakers in America. The two features she released in the aughts, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, both set in the Pacific Northwest, are comments on and products of a stultified generation: they deal with the everyday problems of interpersonal relationships, lack of money (or other bothersome necessaries), and the emptiness of feeling lost, both literally and as mental malaise. They are among the best of modern existential movies, at least in the sense that the difficulty of simple existence is the closely examined subject at their heart. Her newest movie, Meek’s Cutoff, though a bone-dry 19th-century meta-Western, is also her most timely: it plays like the apotheosis of her oeuvre.
Like the characters in them, Reichardt’s movies are continually denied the chance to fulfill their full potential: held back from being widely seen, they struggle against prevailing climates, regarded as outsiders fighting to survive. If she’s struck a mainstream chord, the real evidence is that she continues to find the funding to get her movies made — but she has yet to hit it big. Despite the frequent presence of a movie star (Michelle Williams), Reichardt’s work has repeatedly been deemed worthy of only tiny releases, two or three arthouse theaters around the country at any given time. Perhaps as a response to these difficulties, her films grow bleaker, her characters set against deeper trouble, as the years go by.
In 2006’s Old Joy, based on Oregon writer Jon Raymond’s short story of the same name, that trouble, though no less deep, was extremely common: failed communication between friends who’ve grown apart as they’ve grown up. The movie is the story of a weekend camping trip taken by two estranged friends and of the delicate emotional balance between them. The woods of the Pacific Northwest, which would again factor importantly in Reichardt’s next film, Wendy and Lucy (also based on a story by Raymond), are as much a character as the two friends, paralleling their relationship as a place of simultaneous harmony and hostility.
Wendy and Lucy, released two years later, pits its central character against considerably more life-threatening troubles. It’s a portrait of a traveler, Wendy (Williams), in the final days of her unwilling transition from meagerly funded road tripper to out-and-out vagabond. Her car breaks down in a strange city, an exasperatingly common problem. But whether people are just doing their jobs (security guards in abandoned parking lots) or are openly hostile (vagrants threatening her in the woods where she’s been reduced to sleeping), she finds that benevolent strangers are scarce when she’s just another person trying to get by.
Being released in 2008, Wendy and Lucy was largely viewed in the context of the economic meltdown and the parallels between Wendy’s troubles (she is arrested for shoplifting to feed her dog) and those of millions of struggling Americans. As with her most recent film, Wendy and Lucy is political, but only obliquely, as Reichardt, in what has now come to characterize her style, chooses instead to focus on small emotions: on Williams’ face and the all-but-hidden hostility of a strange environment she both recognizes and submits to.
Meek’s Cutoff, Reichardt’s elegiac story of traveling settlers in the mid 19th century, returns to a few of her favorite things: Williams’ face and a conflict with unsympathetic strangers in a forbidding landscape.
Cutoff is based on a true account from Oregon’s history — a tiny wagon train lost in the state’s central desert in 1845. Led by grizzled guide Stephen Meek (a man, played by Bruce Greenwood, who actually led wagons through Oregon around 1845 but whose exact travels have been confused by history), seven settlers plod alongside three covered wagons, cutting an agonizingly slow path towards a new home in Western Oregon’s lush Willamette Valley.
The journey is unrelentingly harsh. Again, Reichardt and Raymond have heightened the level of trouble against which everyday folks struggle. Scraping to satisfy their most basic needs takes up almost as much of the settler’s time as moving onwards. They can neither find fresh water nor decide whether to trust Meek, the closest thing to a savior they have. They lose an entire day refashioning an axle for a broken wagon, a task that will prove useless as the journey continues. They find gold but can’t take on the weight; without water, wealth is meaningless. Finally, a conflict of wills over a mysterious prisoner carries the movie to its beautiful, slow conclusion.
While the landscape remains alien (to the settlers and to the Western genre itself) and the story moves at an art film’s pace, there are recognizable actors to ground us in reality. Over the course of their journey, Williams’ Emily, mainly in pained and determined close-up, emerges as the leader of the settlers and is pitted against Meek in the battle over the prisoner. As Meek appoints himself the protector of the group, Emily does the same for their captive. Along with Will Patton, as the group’s faltering patriarch, and Paul Dano, as a peremptory young husband, every actor plays as naturalistically as the landscape stays, taking sides even as it hurts their chances of staying alive.
Naturalism and existentialism should ideally go hand in hand — what’s more natural than existence itself? — yet existential movies more often settle for wringing phony drama out of easy naturalism, letting gorgeous landscapes or pretentious acting do their work for them. Although Reichardt’s style is nearly invisible — she hardly moves her camera or surprises us with editing — her personal stamp is that she moves the story with necessity, and we are caught up in it. Her films are attuned to the subtleties, rather than the histrionics, of living in a forbidding world.
Although set back in history, Meek’s Cutoff is one of 2011’s most modern films. Set in a genre stale from reinvention, it disregards convention to pit the conflicts that have always dominated our lives against a perpetually implacable world. See it before the movies of the summer run it out of what few theaters it managed to get.