Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Meek's Cutoff

Kelly Reichardt's gaunt, mysterious and superbly crafted film about pioneers and the old American west appears to have come from another age – from the early days of Malick or Antonioni. Some sequences are almost entirely wordless, and long stretches will go by in which you can hear only the repeated whine of the wagon wheels as the pioneers grimly trudge along, alongside the cattle pulling the wagons across the endless flat prairie. Sometimes, this sound is only just audible above the roar of the wind across the plains.

The three families have been persuaded to break away from the main column on the promise of a short cut, by the guide Stephen Meek - a wild man of the plains. Now they are hopelessly lost. They travel mostly on foot, leading their horses to save energy and water, their wagons, containing precious barrels of water, pulled by oxen. It nightmarishly portrays an old West of no roads, no signs of water, and no signs of civilization. But they follow Meek across the plains, hoping that the hill over the next horizon will bring hope. They they capture the Indian, a solitary man. The braggart Meek and the men discuss whether to kill him before he leads them into an ambush, the women want to keep him as maybe he can show them the way or lead them to water. The women in their long calico dresses and bonnets are stoic and resourceful.

The ending is very enigmatic - is the tree a symbol of water? The Indian feels he has fulfilled his part of the deal, and he leaves. He is secure in his position, the settlers have been saved but in truth they do not belong in this environment, they are invaders in a landscape as alien to them as the moon. Imagine what they must have felt: having crossed the long prairies, the rivers, worried about Natives and disease, crossed the Rockies - all that, and then they're being led into the wilderness by what they must have thought a lunatic. It is one of the most fascinating, powerful, hypnotic westerns I have seen.

Michelle Williams - soon to be Marilyn Monroe in the film about the making of THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL, she will surely be as amazing as usual - excels here as the main woman who feels she can trust the Native. Other scenes like the destruction of one of the wagons are marvellously paced. These settlers, like all the others, had to have True Grit indeed. It makes other westerns about pioneers and covered wagons, such as 1959's THUNDER IN THE SUN with those French Basques taking their vines to California (led by Susan Hayward and Jeff Chandler) seem very bland fare indeed, with the Indians as "the enemy" to be defeated; perhaps only Jan Troell's THE EMIGRANTS (1971) and THE NEW LAND ('72) caught the hardships of the new immigrants? as Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann travel from Sweden to the new land - and of course Lelouch's ANOTHER MAN ANOTHER WOMAN with its immigrants from France ...

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