Your Favorite Independent Film
“What would John Wayne’s character look like from the woman that served his soup?” – Meek’s Cutoff director Kelly Reichardt
For more than a week, I have been trying to grasp exactly what I want to say about Meek’s Cutoff. My head has been swirling with many thoughts about the story, characters, performances, direction, and cinematography. What is it all working towards?
Fundamentally Meek’s Cutoff is a revisionist Western that centers on the lives of women as they cross the Oregon High Desert with their families. The group is led by guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) who may be leading them no where. Tensions mount as water becomes scarce and the two-week journey becomes more arduous. When the group encounters and captures a Native American (Ron Rondeaux), the film shifts from a story about survival to a story about gender differences and fears of an ethnic other.
The women, played by Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan, represent three very different types, visually marked by the contrasting colors of their dresses and bonnets. They differ in age, are in different stages of their marriages and have different levels of individual agency. They are given little authority to make decisions although their work – cooking, cleaning, minding the children – is no less important.
That fact that director Kelly Reichardt focuses the film on these women emphasizes that their presence is more important than their male counterparts. We never hear the conversations these men have about what to do with their wayward guide or the Indian. It is instead the women, their conversations, their solidarity with one another, and above all their morality, that drives the narrative.
Meek’s Cutoff is less about its characters and performances (Williams’ character is the only one with any depth). It is more about how this story is stylistically told through realist tendencies and a slow, methodical progression.
I can’t help but turn my attention to the other post-9/11 independent films that fascinate me and how Meek’s Cutoff relates. Like Reichardt’s 2008 film Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff explores notions of identity. Yet the historical context of Meek’s Cutoff causes this exploration of self to encompass many complex layers. Gender, class, and Americanism all play a part in how the settlers exist and define themselves. Most telling is how these white settlers pit themselves against the non-white other emphasizes the early foundations of a long-standing American fear of the other. Kazan’s character Millie is a hysterical woman convinced that the Indian will kill the group; her hysterics are matched by the actions of the men. In a way this is on par with Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, which places the fear of an ethnic other in a contemporary setting, a setting that revolves around post-9/11 anxieties. Meek’s Cutoff seems to ever so slightly offer a commentary on current relations with immigrants and how we define ourselves against someone else.
By now we know what to expect from a Tom McCarthy movie. Middle-aged white guys with either financial or relationship problems reach a better place in their lives after meeting someone different from themselves. The Tri-State area and a well-respected actor (Peter Dinklage; Richard Jenkins) are always somehow involved. We know this because The Station Agent (2003) and The Visitor (2008) worked this angle so perfectly. McCarthy’s latest film, Win Win, follows this same pattern with the same funny, touching, and entertaining results.
Here the middle-aged white guy, New Jersey lawyer Mike Flaherty, is played by Paul Giamatti, who is easily one of the most under-appreciated actors around. Mike is struggling with the many problems of suburban life: his law practice is barely afloat, he can’t pay the bills, he’s keeping it from his wife (Amy Ryan), and he coaches a consistently losing high school wrestling team. The boiler is literally about to blow.
Things suddenly improve when Mike becomes the guardian for an elderly client, Leo, and receives a payout from his estate. Things get even better – and more complicated – when Leo’s estranged grandson, Kyle, arrives from Ohio. The Flahertys take in shaggy blonde-haired Kyle (Alex Shaffer) and as luck would have it, he turns out be a wrestling prodigy. When his absentee mom shows up, she shakes up the newly formed family and threatens to blow the lid on Mike’s kind of sketchy dealings.
Win Win works brilliantly on many levels. It is a family dramedy made best largely thanks to the performances of the supporting cast. Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale provide comic relief as Mike’s friends with their own set of middle-aged white guy issues (obnoxious stepson; divorce). Alex Shaffer surprises as Kyle, a kid dubbed “Eminem” early on and who doesn’t say much but gets his points across every time. The best scenes are between him and his surrogate parents. And the always incomparable Amy Ryan as Mike’s wife Jackie brings a fierceness to the role that is really best described as straight up Jersey. (Homegirl even rocks a Bon Jovi tattoo.)
Win Win is also a coming-of-age story and a sports film. The movie will easily draw comparisons to The Blind Side because of its troubled-foster-kid-joins-the-wrestling-team-and-everyone-becomes-better-because-of-it subplot. But it is no where near as unbearable and contrived as that movie. This is because Win Win does not depend on delivering a grandiose message or force-feeding an Oscar campaign down your throats.
Mike Flaherty is deeply flawed character (McCarthy’s protagonists always are) and is really no better than the people he wants to rise above. But by the grace of Giamatti’s performance, we want everything to work out for him with no consequences. Not for really his sake though, but rather for the people he keeps trying so hard to help and protect.
It helps that Win Win centers squarely on everyday American life and on a complicated family dynamic. The quirky aspects of American life – outcasts, immigrants, run-of-the-mill-lawyers – is something that Tom McCarthy shows off in all of his films but with varying degrees of success. Win Win is less gimmicky and some ways not as strong as McCarthy’s two previous films (The Visitor really comes to mind here) but the reward is just the same.
I first watched Hirokazu Koreeda’s Nobody Knows after it was released in the U.S. I remember this being an emotionally draining viewing experience. This cinematically simple yet absolutely gut-wrenching film about 12-year-old Akira who is left to care for his three younger siblings when their mother abandons them lingered in my mind. Even though I found Nobody Knows to be moving, the film did not launch any sort of study of Koreeda or Japanese cinema on my part.
I revisited Nobody Knows five years later when I was researching independent filmmaker So Yong Kim’s 2006 film, In Between Days. Kim and her husband, filmmaker Bradley Rust Gray (The Exploding Girl) have a wonderful creative partnership that has produced some of the best American independent films of the last five years. They often hold various roles on each other’s projects. Ben Howe, a producer on their films, has explained, “It’s almost as if [Kim and Gray] think together. It’s definitely one or the other’s film, but every decision is made with the other one close in mind.” This only strengthens Gray and Kim’s commitment to making great films no matter the struggle to get them made. In Between Days was made over a two-week period on a limited budget. The result is an aesthetically beautiful and poetic portrait of a teenage Korean girl as she struggles to assimilate to American culture. It’s an overwhelmingly naturalistic representation of female existence and teenage isolation.
Nobody Knows comes into focus when examining So Yong Kim’s second feature Treeless Mountain. Both films have strikingly similar themes. Like Nobody Knows, Treeless Mountain deals with children who have been abandoned. The film follows two sisters, ages 6 and 4, as they deal with their mother’s absence and are sent to live with various family members. The story is loosely based from Kim’s childhood experiences in South Korea.
When Kim began to work on this film, she sought out the advice of Koreeda about directing children and shooting in 16mm. With the help of a translator,Koreeda gave a long and detailed answer. At the end of the conversation, the translator turned to Kim and said, “Eda-san says 16mm very good!” Her question might not have been answered but there is no doubt the influence that Nobody Knows had on Kim and her approach to Treeless Mountain.
During the 2009 Tribeca Film Festbaival, Gray and Kim interviewed Koreeda about his 2009 film Still Walking. It’s a fascinating and revealing conversation between the three filmmakers about Koreeda’s background, influences, and techniques. One of So Yong Kim’s questions, I think, shows how Koreeda’s work has influenced her approach to filmmaking.
So Yong Kim: I think interviews are mostly for other filmmakers to learn from directors. Back when it came out, I read an interview about Nobody Knows, because I wanted to learn how you made the film and worked with your actors, and with the camera, etc. The question I have about Still Walking is about working with an ensemble of professional actors. How is that different than working with nonactors, like in Nobody Knows?
Hirokazu Koreeda: In the case of Still Walking, I wrote a very, very detailed, hammered-out screenplay, and then I read through it with the actors, and then based on that I revised the script. Then I did blocking on the set, and then I had the actors read, just to make sure they could read the lines in the time it took to walk across the set. I did all this before shooting to ensure that the atmosphere would look lived-in by the actors.
And with Nobody Knows, you know, it’s the same goal as with Still Walking. But because I had essentially nonactors, even though there was a script, I never gave it to actors at all. I never gave them dialogue until I was in the room, ready to roll the camera. And then I would say, “Why don’t you try saying something like this?”
So, I took the opposite approach with actors in opposite situations. With the veterans, I timed it within an inch of its life to make it look natural and lived-in, and with the nonactors, I did it 100% spontaneous to make it look lived-in and spontaneous.
So Yong Kim: Which way do you prefer to work?
Hirokazu Koreeda: I don’t really have a particular filmmaking style or method. The goal is finding how to make a particular character in a particular film or setting look as charming and appealing as possible. So whatever it takes.
Personally, I prefer the Nobody Knows method, but there is the guilt that I am stealing laughter and smiles from children for my movie. I have genuine guilt about that, and I had none of that for Still Walking, because I hadn’t stolen anything from anybody.
Even though Koreeda says that he doesn’t have a particular filmmaking style or method, here Koreeda is broadly discussing a neorealist approach to filmmaking. You can see how Koreeda’s style, however you may define it, has influenced Gray and Kim’s work. These three filmmakers aim to create the most realistically feeling films imaginable, as if life is unfolding on the screen as it naturally occurs. More importantly, from Koreeda’s work and even this interview, you can see how far reaching the director’s lens is when it comes to who his work and his filmmaking techniques influences stateside.
Directors and screenwriters Bradley Rust Gray and So Yong Kim know how to make exceptional movies. Since 2003, the married filmmaking team has created some of the most poignant, understated and underappreciated independent films of the past decade – Salt (2003), In Between Days (2006), Treeless Mountain (2008), and most recently, The Exploding Girl (2009). The quality of their work stems from an appreciation for minimalist storytelling and outstanding character development. Long, extended takes where seemingly nothing significant happens and an eye for the slightest details creates scenes of poetic beauty unlike any other onscreen. Kim’s In Between Days and Gray’s The Exploding Girl are both films dependent on these techniques to tell moving coming of age stories about their young, female protagonists.
In The Exploding Girl, Zoe Kazan (Elia’ granddaughter) stars as Ivy, a 20-year-old college student returning home for her spring break. Her best friend Al (Mark Rendell) spends the week with her at her Brooklyn apartment. As Ivy’s relationship with her boyfriend Greg, who we never see, begins to crumble and Ivy spends more time with Al, she reevaluates her life and her relationship with Al.
The film’s title, The Exploding Girl, refers to Ivy’s little mentioned epilepsy, although the possibility of Ivy having a seizure causes some tension throughout the film. What the film effectively captures is not this literal explosion (so to speak) but rather the slow, gradual implosion of Ivy’s life and how it weighs on her mind and understanding of herself. And this realization is just stunning to watch.
For 79 minutes this very simple story of finding oneself and love unfolds on the screen. Ivy and Al attend parties, sit in the park, play cards, share meals; they just exist. These scenes are often shot in either tight close-ups, through door frames, or in long takes, where the action takes place in one single shot. This minimalist editing allows the viewer to focus on the subtlety of Kazan’s performance – the tone of her voice as she speaks to her off-screen boyfriend, the pain in her eyes as things slowly fall apart – and to recognize that director Gray is capturing the most banal yet significant moments of a life.
In some ways, Ivy is an extension of Aimee, the shy immigrant in So Yong Kim’s In Between Days. Ivy is an older, more refined version of Aimee, if Aimee had been dealt different cards in life and had she not been a young immigrant adrift in the world. Like Aimee, Ivy is on the verge of collapse although by the film’s conclusion Ivy reaches an understanding about her life that Aimee never finds.