Review: Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff

“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.

A scene like this is one of many that evoked Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust.

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.

This post is a part of my ongoing Thesis Redux project. More here on the films I will be watching and writing about.

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The Female Directors I Love

A Twitter conversation last night with Anna, who blogs at Defiant Success,  got me thinking: who are my favorite female directors?

Having studied film at a women’s college, a significant number of the courses I took centered on women’s cinema. Women experimental filmmakers dominated my course of study. (I can talk your ear off about Marie Menken, Joyce Wieland, Marjorie Kellor, Peggy Ahwesh, but I will spare you.) I was exposed to everything from the MadCat Women’s International Film Festival to the work of German feminist filmmakers to a weekend well-spent at the Anthology Film Archives. This has all come together to help me truly appreciate the work of female directors who are often cast aside by the system.

I always found it painfully ironic that Alice Guy-Blaché directed the first narrative film, La Fée aux Choux,  in 1896. She directed more than 100 films, was the first woman to own and run a film studio, but her impact on film history was largely forgotten until recently.

Guy-Blaché’s career is representative of something greater. Female directors typically have to work twice as hard as their male counterparts to get their films made. This has changed only slightly in the last 20 years, even as more and more female directors gain international recognition and even Academy Awards. Women are still most likely to be found working in the independent and avant-garde film circles, where there is a system – so to speak – established that makes it easier for female directors to get films made. Because female directors often work on the edge of the mainstream film industry, their films are sharper, feminist critiques on society than seen in most films.

Here is a list of female directors whose work I always seek out, along with one of their films I recommend.

Chantal Akerman – Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)
Andrea Arnold – Red Road (2006)
Susanne Bier – After the Wedding (2006)
Jane Campion – Sweetie (1989)
Julie Dash – Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Maya Deren – Meshes of an Afternoon (1943)/ At Land (1944)
Doris Dörrie – Cherry Blossoms (2008)
Su Friedrich – Sink or Swim (1990)
So Yong Kim – In Between Days (2006)
Courtney Hunt – Frozen River (2008)
Samira Makhmalbaf – Blackboards (2000)
Deepa Mehta – Fire (1996)
Mira Nair – Salaam Bombay (1988)
Sally Potter – Orlando (1992)
Kelly Reichardt – Wendy and Lucy (2008)
Helma Sanders-Brahms – Germany Pale Mother (1980)
Agnes Varda – Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962)
Margarethe von Trotta – The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (1975)

I could keep going on and on with this list. Who is your favorite female director? Comment away!