Your Favorite Independent Film
A Film With Your Favorite Actress
Melissa Leo is probably my favorite actress of the moment. If given the opportunity, I would follow Leo blindly into a foxhole. I would probably skip too. That is how much I adore her. Not only is she a great character actress but she is also ridiculously off-the-cuff. This past Oscar season proved just how wonderfully over-the-top Leo can get. (Admittedly, I like my actors and actresses a little crazy as long as they don’t enter Charlie Sheen territory.)
My favorite performance from Leo is in Frozen River. Ray Eddy is a hard-edged unintentionally feminist anti-hero. Leo owns this character. I can’t think of any other actress who could portray Ray with the same level of grittiness and to the same degree of success.
(And please Courtney Hunt, make another movie!)
“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.
It is rare when a movie that is recommended to you so frequently actually has a deeply profound impact on how you see every film the came before and after it.
I first heard about Killer of Sheep as I imagine many college kids do — in a film history course as one of the suggested outside of class viewings you should see “as soon as you can.” My professor was especially enthusiastic about Killer of Sheep. It was 2007 and the film has just been released on DVD for the first time since 1977. Director Charles Burnett was going to be present at a special screening of the film at the Amherst Cinema. We were strongly encouraged to attend.
I didn’t go. At the time, a film like Killer of Sheep could barely make a dent on my radar because I was blindly infatuated by my love for classic cinema. (Not that this is a bad thing, but I have come to realize how limiting watching only classic Hollywood cinema can be.) Two years later, I found myself finally watching the restored version of this film and I was absolutely mesmerized. If there is any film that cements the notions that the cinema is the powerful artistic medium, that films should offer a nuanced social commentary, and the necessity for film restoration, it is Killer of Sheep.
In the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders) works at the local slaughterhouse. His job is gruesome, strenuous and dangerous. It affects his home life with his wife and two children; he becomes increasingly detached from his surroundings. In a series of vignettes, we watch Stan go through various experiences – at home, with his friends, in the community – that don’t lead to any real plot or character development. This way the film emphasizes the daily monotony of life and even the unintentional humor that comes from it.
As promised, here is the filmography for my Thesis Redux blogging project. It is a bit abridged – there are more than 100 movies I could/should revisit – but these are the core ones I intend on watching in the coming weeks.
The three main films:
And all the rest worth considering: