With “Certain Women,” Kelly Reichardt took a move back toward the kind of stories that made her career – the quiet routines that define and confine the lives of Pacific Northwesterners. But earlier this decade, Reichardt made some notable forays into the world of genre filmmaking with 2014’s “Night Moves,” an eco-thriller, and 2011’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” a revisionist and feminist take on the Western.
I caught the former at the 2013 London Film Festival, which forced me to abandon all ties to the outside world and dive headfirst into her carefully constructed universe. I was not so lucky to see “Meek’s Cutoff” in a theater, however, which meant years of putting off watching the film since I knew it would command so much of my attention. I stopped and started the film several times, knowing that anything that took my brain out of the experience would make the viewing a wash. When I had the chance to interview Reichardt earlier this year, I knew I could wait no longer.
Once I finally plunged myself into “Meek’s Cutoff,” my latest selection for “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” I was rewarded handsomely for my patience and attentiveness. Reichardt does not subvert genre tropes, as many revisionist filmmakers do in a self-congratulatory exhibition of their own cinematic knowledge. Rather, she inverts them, ascribing the same respect and earnestness normally accorded to heroic white men to their muted female companions and Native American guides.
Reichardt tells “Meek’s Cutoff” from a woman’s point of view, which includes making certain information obscured or downright off-limits. When the men in charge are talking, she makes things intentionally hard to hear or keeps the camera at such a distance that we cannot help but feel entirely removed from the decision making process. When Michelle Williams’ Emily Tetherow is privy to some information from her husband, Will Patton’s Solomon, she receives it in a whisper during the utter blackness of the prairie nights.
Tensions of all kinds flare on this 1840s journey along the Oregon Trail as the wagon caravan’s guide, Bruce Greenwood’s Meek, inspires doubts among the group. Amongst themselves, the settlers begin to wonder if he has intentionally led them astray to their demise. Supply begins to run as low as spirit, leading to rash decisions and some surprising assertions of authority. As survival instincts kick in, the clamor of wisdom from the women grows louder and harder to ignore. While an adjective like “thrilling” or “exciting” may not apply given the pace of Reichardt’s film, “compelling” sure does. Anyone willing to stop everything and simply live in the frame will find a textured, intelligent and unique take on the Old West.