REVIEW: Meek’s Cutoff

Meek’s Cutoff
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Written by: Jon Raymond (screenplay)
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, and Shirley Henderson

The post-modern western Meek’s Cutoff, the latest from minimalist director Kelly Reichardt, operates with two things in mind: people are indecisive, and the Oregon Trail is beautiful.  In this quiet, contemplative film we find an American allegory set against the Western Expansion in the 1800s.

A group of settlers is led by a guide named Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a bearded troubadour who prefers to burn through the plains rather than accept their dominance.  The whole film rotates around the settlers’ mounting uncertainty, especially that of Emily (Michelle Williams).  

Meek’s Cutoff acknowledges the intolerance of the time period, and uses it as a mirror to today.  Screenwriter Jon Raymond has written some beautifully expressive dialogue  in this film, especially considering how little overall talking there is.  The back-and-forth Meek and Emily share when he asks her if she hates him is one of the most well-written exchanges of the year.

The role of Emily does not mark the first time Williams has operated in the low-key films of Ms. Reichardt.  The two brilliantly collaborated in 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, another earnest American folktale set in Oregon.  That film was better, and Williams was better in it, but this one is still quite good.  It has more in common with Reichardt’s 2006 film Old Joy with its picturesque nature setting and many unspoken implications.  This is not the bombastic Western setting of John Ford or Sergio Leone.  There are no grandiose shootouts or even any cowboys (It’s rated PG).

Instead of typical Western conventions that directors like the Coen Brothers have subverted to their own post-modern ends, Reichardt favors a mood of near-tranquility.  There are outbursts, as when Meek and another settler played by Paul Dano bring back a Native American captive.  Fear of the unknown seeps to the surface, but Emily’s whispering into the ear of her husband (Will Patton) turns the “savage” into their guide instead of a corpse.

Muttering is largely how Emily and the other women silently get their way in this movie.  There are several instances where the men mutter to themselves about what it is the camp should do.  Reichardt almost always pans to the women, silently gathered to the side and watching their lives being decided for them. They recall the nuns of Doubt, albeit with more colorful garments, in more ways than one.

This is important to note because it clearly establishes Reichardt’s vision of the film and her identity as one of the few female directors working today.  Had a male director been behind the camera, those scenes may have been shot quite differently. The most revolutionary thing about Meek’s Cutoff may be that it confronts gender without sacrificing any of the realism in the time period.  When Emily takes up arms against Meek in the film’s climax it’s, as the New York Times also noted, more than a gun she’s wielding.

Just because Meek’s Cutoff is not as masterful as Wendy and Lucy does not dismiss it from discussion.  In fact, it is still a very fine film, one that has a clearly defined worldview and cinematography that is absolutely striking given the budget.  The early images of a vast empty field and the howling wind striking a lone Emily behind the other wagons is a perfect visual metaphor for its themes. On this journey they are all together but separate, moving forward with no direction at all.

Grade: B

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REVIEW: Cowboys & Aliens

Cowboys & Aliens
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof, Mark Fergus, & Hawk Ostby (screenplay), Scott Mitchell Rosenberg (comic)
Starring: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, and Sam Rockwell

You can almost see the studio meeting that birthed this movie.  I’m sure it went something likes this:

“What’s the title?”

Cowboys & Aliens.”

“We’ll sell the title, then.  It’ll be like Snakes on a Plane!  Who’s directing?”

“We’d like to get the guy from Iron Man on board.  Also, we want Harrison Ford to star.”

“Great, looks like you’ve thought of everything!  Here’s $100 million.”

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REVIEW: Rango

Rango
Directed by: Gore Verbinski
Written by: John Logan (screenplay)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Isla Fisher, Ned Beatty, and Bill Nighy

Go ahead, label Rango an animated vehicle for Johnny Depp driven by his Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski.   You wouldn’t be wrong, but you would be guilty of oversimplifying one of the most outlandish and downright weird animated movies to cross mainstream audiences in a long time.

It seems almost mandatory at this point to acknowledge that Rango is indeed not a product of Pixar.  However, it doesn’t come from Dreamworks either, but rather Nickelodeon.  To this end, the bizarre twists and somewhat more mature material seem more at home.  So too does Depp, voicing The Chameleon With No Name who later assumes the identity Rango when he stumbles into an Old West Town.

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REVIEW: Jonah Hex

Jonah Hex
Directed by: Jim Hayward
Written by: Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor (screenplay)
Starring: Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, and Michael Fassbender

We must face it: the comic book adaptation is here to stay.  You can bet your (kick-) ass that any character that’s ever been drawn to a page to tell a story along with words will eventually get its Hollywood due.  So step right up for Jonah Hex, yet another unknown adaptation from an allegedly brilliant source material.

Hex begins compellingly different than most of its counterparts.  We begin almost immediately at our title character’s (Josh Brolin) moment of dire straits.  Rather than have that Utopian, dull first few scenes with bright colors, giggling children, and adoring spouse, we see arch nemesis (Jon Malkovich) light them all on fire.  One thing that can be said of Jonah Hex, if not much else, is that it doesn’t bull-shit you with its pretentious morality.  The script may try to hint at a soul within our weary anti-hero, but Brolin quells it rather quickly.

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