This film narrative begins with a long shot of a container ship moving at a good speed through a wide river passage. In a wooded area close to the river a woman discovers something which after investigation and careful scraping away of soil reveals two skeletons side by side. A cut takes us to a close-up of a man picking chanterelles, wild mushrooms, in the woods. The man’s rather tattered clothes and the introduction of non-diegetic music – a harpsichord or a dulcimer? – suggests an earlier time. The man is ‘Cookie’ (John Magaro), hired by a bunch of unkempt trappers to keep them fed, partly through his foraging. A little later he finds a naked Chinese man in the woods. Unlike the squabbling trappers Cookie seems a kindly soul who gives the Chinese man a blanket, and food and drink and hides him from the trappers.
With this opening, writer-director-editor Kelly Reichardt and her writing partner Jon Raymond, whose novel they adapt, raise any number of intriguing questions about American history, myth-making, the concept of the Western narrative and also the writing of those narratives about ‘discovery’ and the early attempts by Europeans to live alongside indigenous peoples and other migrants in the North West of what would later become the United States. They don’t directly tell us when or where this long flashback is set but if we know their previous collaborations such as the feminist Western Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010), we might reasonably assume that this is ‘Oregon Country’ a large area being exploited mostly for beaver pelts by both British and American interests. Raymond’s novel Half Life (2004) confirms that this is the setting. The time is the 1820s but I’m not sure how learned that.
After aiding the the Chinese man, King-Lu (Orion Lee), Cookie doesn’t see him again for some time but then he meets him again in the ramshackle settlement known as ‘Fort Tilikum’. King-Lu has somehow acquired a shack and he invites Cookie to visit. Soon the two men settle in together, learning a little about each other’s background. ‘Cookie’ is a skilled baker who dreams of owning a hotel and bakery in San Francisco. King-Lu is from North China and has travelled the world. Both have heard that this is the land of abundance and they discuss ways in which to make their fortunes. King-Lu is the more bullish but Cookie has the skills to make baked goods that would sell very well in the settlement – like ‘hot cakes’ in fact. The key to possible success is the ‘first cow’, a beautiful dairy cow that has been brought to the nearby grand residence of the ‘Chief Factor’. Played by Toby Jones this character and his main employee Lloyd (Ewen Bremner) represent the English/Scottish influence in the area. ‘Factor’ is the Scots word for someone who acts as the agent of a large landowner. It was also a word used to describe the entrepreneurs who were wheeler-dealers in the lands controlled by the Hudson’s Bay company, the main power in Oregon at this time. (Much of this background is also explored in The Sisters Brothers (France-Belgium 2018), though some twenty-five years later when the ‘Oregon Territory’ is being developed.)
The Chief Factor has bought the cow, the first to be seen in the area, to improve his hospitality but unfortunately the bull and calf that accompanied it died during shipment. Cookie declares that if he had access to milk he could bake anything, not just ‘flour and water bread’. Here could be the two men’s golden chance. But how will he and King-Lu get the milk? That’s basically the rest of the plot and you can probably work out what happens.
First Cow is a long film (122 mins), especially given the rather thin plot. It’s shot in the squarish Academy format that had mainly disappeared from American film production by the mid-1950s, certainly from ‘studio productions’ (but which Reichardt used in Meek’s Cutoff). Much of the film takes place in the murky world of interiors with candlelight or in the woods at night. For audiences more used to high key action pictures it must be a trial to watch. Toby Jones and Ewen Bremner are likely to be the only actors UK audiences will recognise, although the woman seen in the short opening sequence is Alia Shawkat, who has featured in many US TV series and independent films. The same is true of John Magaro and Orion Lee. Other actors, like the creative team may have been part of other Kelly Reichardt productions. There are three kinds of responses to the film: bewilderment and professed boredom from mainstream cinemagoers, a feeling that this isn’t the best of Reichardt’s work by some critics and acclaim by those who feel she has once again offered a unique and cogent statement about American culture. I’m with the last group and I would bracket her with Debra Granik as my two favourite US auteurs. I expect Chloe Zhao will join them when I’ve seen more of her films.
Much of the discussion about the film is around concepts of naïvete, mythmaking and critiques of capitalism. It’s an interesting time to discuss these concepts alongside the fate of indigenous peoples and the assimilation of migrants in the expanding United States. The two central characters are both likeable men. They don’t mean harm to anyone, they just want to make something of themselves. They don’t realise that this ‘Eden’ or ‘land of opportunity’ is (a) the homeland of local North American peoples and (b) that Eden has already been corrupted by the early capitalist exploitation of the Hudson Bay Company, the rapacious agent of British colonialism. There is no going back, the indigenous people are being killed by European diseases, the local beaver population is being decimated by trapping and there is no law as yet. I was reminded of various Westerns, set later. Those in the North West like Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) which shares an actor with First Cow, René Auberjonois, and Michael Winterbottom’s Hardy adaptation, The Claim (UK-Canada 2000). Both these films share a sense of European miners and other migrants, but they also feature European women. First Cow has no lead female roles but there are many scenes when indigenous women are silently in the background. The one sequence in which there is dialogue is that between the Chief Factor’s wife and the wife of an indigenous man. The Chief Factor’s wife is played by Lily Gladstone, the actor with Native American heritage who also appears in a key role in Reichardt’s previous film, Certain Women (2016). I’m not sure yet what this presentation of indigenous women really means in this film, except that it was the European men who messed things up first. But were the European women who followed complicit? And we mustn’t forget the presence of the East Asian men.
I’ve seen some reviews which don’t accept that First Cow is a Western at all. I would disagree. I know Western scholars tend to see the key period setting for the genre as 1865-1895, but the underlying themes of the Western run across the whole development of the United States and across those of the other nation states with similar human and physical geography. First Cow is a wonderful addition to the history of the Western and it prompts me to think about a whole series of other Westerns which I’ll get to at some point. The film has been acquired for UK distribution by MUBI which should see some cinema screenings and then availability on MUBI’s screening service. Not to be missed!
Although I’d seen Kelly Reichardt’s previous three films, I still wasn’t quite prepared for Certain Women. I watched it intently but despite foreknowledge about her approach to narrative I was still surprised when it just stopped. I’ve thought a lot about the film over the last few days. Ms Reichardt is a favourite of many (most?) critics and I understand why. But her films still don’t get a wide release. She doesn’t make it easy for audiences but I would urge you to watch the films if you get the chance.
The ‘certain women’ of the title are four women in Montana. They are involved in three separate narratives which are subtly linked together in indirect ways. In the first we meet a small town lawyer played by Laura Dern who finds herself exhausted and exasperated by a difficult client. In the second, Michelle Williams is a business woman with a husband and teenage daughter who don’t seem totally enamoured of her attempts to build a weekend cottage using sustainable local materials. The third story features Kristen Stewart as a recent law graduate with little money forced to drive across the state to teach night school. There, by accident, she meets a young woman working in a solitary job as a ranch hand looking after a small herd over winter. This character (who some reviewers refer to as ‘Jamie’) is played by Lily Gladstone who is part Native American. I have to agree with all the critics and festival juries who pick out her performance over her more established fellow actors – each of whom are very good in their roles.
Chosen as the ‘Best Film’ at the London Film Festival in 2016, Certain Women has since been extensively reviewed so here I want to focus on just a limited range of responses. (Sophie Mayer has an excellent article on the film in Sight and Sound, March 2017 – it isn’t online as far as I can see but Mayer covers some of the same ground here.) Kelly Reichardt was born in Florida and her first film was made there, but her recent work is set in the North West, especially in Oregon. Landscape is crucially important in these films and Reichardt began her career with a fascination for photography. She has been well-served by her director of photography Christopher Blauvelt who has shot her last three films and she herself has taken on the film editing for her five major features. She has re-iterated that she hopes audiences will look to find meanings in her films rather than have them explained. The first shot of Certain Women (the whole film was shot on 16mm, blown up) is a static long shot as a mile-long freight train gradually comes into view. I’m not sure if I immediately thought of Brokeback Mountain at this point, but I certainly did later. The first shot of Brokeback is a long shot of a truck stopping early in the morning, in Wyoming not Montana but the landscape is similar. There are huge spaces, mountains, big skies and only a few people in small towns. I remember two other specific moments from early in the film. In one the camera lingers on a scene in a small shopping mall where children in Native American costume are performing a dance. It feels like a documentary. Sound is important as well. Laura Dern’s character, despondent in her car, turns on the radio/CD and we hear Guy Clark’s ‘Boats to Build’:
It’s time for a change
I’m tired of that same o’l same
The same ol’ words the same ol’ lines
The same ol’ tricks and the same ol’ rhymes
Days precious days
Roll in and out like waves
I got boards to bend I got planks to nail
I got charts to make I got seas to sail
I didn’t register those lyrics at the time, but when I read them now, they seem like the perfect ironic accompaniment to the desolate lives of the characters. I’ve never been to Montana but I’ve read a few stories and watched a lot of movies. The stories that interest me most are those which are either set in the final days of the ‘frontier’, both ‘real’ and mythical, or which comment in some way on the world of the contemporary ‘Western’ with its lonely cowhands and characters seemingly bereft of purpose. Any time after the 1880s is perfect for the ‘twilight Western’ and Brokeback Mountain is one of the most prominent examples of this kind of story. Brokeback began as an E. Annie Proulx short story that was adapted by Diana Ossana and the ‘dean of the twilight Western’, Larry McMurtry (also responsible for the Montana-set Lonesome Dove and Texas-set The Last Picture Show). Another writer with a trilogy of Montana-set variations on the twilight Western is Thomas McGuane with Rancho Deluxe (1975), The Missouri Breaks (1976) and Tom Horn (1980). The (anti-)heroes of these stories are generally men who can’t come to terms with the decline of the West and its codes and are defeated/discouraged by the modernised West. (Jane Fonda in Alan J. Pakula’s Comes a Horseman from 1978 is one of the few female leads.)
Kelly Reichardt began to critique the Western with Meek’s Cutoff (2010) in which Michelle Williams plays a woman with more sense than the men on her pioneer wagon train – but, of course, the men don’t listen to her. The four women of Certain Women still live to some extent in a world of men who don’t listen or who make foolish decisions which the women will pay for in some way. For Certain Women Reichardt has adapted short stories by Montana novelist Maile Meloy from her collections Half in Love (2002) and Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (2009). It occurs to me that each of the three stories could be related to Western narratives and themes. The first story develops into a familiar tale about sheriffs and fugitives with Laura ‘used’ by the law because she is compassionate and can defuse a potentially tricky situation. What does she get out of it? It’s as if she’s restricted by those traditional roles for women in the Western – schoolteacher, pioneer mother or saloon girl. The third story about the lonely ranch hand and the exhausted teacher is a sad romance, beautifully played and paced and its standout is the short sequence in which the two young women are together on the horse that takes them between the school and the diner. This story has obvious echoes of Brokeback (in which, as I’ve just remembered, Montana-born Michelle Williams is the abandoned wife and mother). In the twilight Western there are often two characters – one who tries to adapt to modernity and one who is trapped inside the codes of the West (which in these stories are usually honourable codes). The exhausted Beth and ‘natural’ ranch hand again seem familiar.
In the second story from Certain Women Williams is Gina, the ‘strong woman’ still not sure if she is doing the right thing and struggling with herself as she does what those pioneer women had to do and build her own house (or at least, direct and organise the men she finds to do it). In this story the key scene is her encounter with the old man who has a pile of sandstone blocks that she would like to use for her house. He doesn’t need them but how much should she pay for them? Is she right to ask for them? If he offers them to her for free should she take them? The man with the stones is played by René Auberjonois, a name I recognised more than a face. Later I realised I had seen him in countless Westerns as well as the films of Robert Altman (Reichardt in an interview says she used to use his voice as the bartender in McCabe and Mrs Miller in exercises for film students). While her husband says nothing, Gina tries to engage the old man when he looks out on his land and points out the birds. Gina mimics the bird calls and we can’t be sure whether she is genuinely interested in the birds or just practised in negotiation. Again she seems to be struggling with a ‘modern’ role. Is she any happier than in her previous incarnation as pioneer woman?
The first story, in which Laura at one point cries out, imagining what it might be like to be a man who is listened to and given credence, is the only one with conventional (i.e. generic) ‘action’ – but even then its conclusion is subverted. In all three stories, the meaning is conveyed through landscape, cinematography and sound. It’s also ironic that one of the markers of the mise en scène of the ‘woman’s picture’ is costume. Reichardt may well have made an ‘anti-woman’s picture’ (as well as an ‘anti-Western’ and an ‘anti-melodrama’?). Costume says a lot here. In the first scene Laura returns to her office from a lunch-time tryst, late and a little bedraggled. Her sweater is half tucked in her skirt and half pulled out. We watch her climb the stairs and then come down when she is called to the phone by her receptionist. We know it isn’t going to be an easy afternoon. By contrast, Michelle Williams as Gina is seen first in running gear (and headphones) and then securely wrapped up for the cold – ‘properly’ dressed and with her hair tied up. At the end of the episode when she smokes a cigarette and sips a glass of wine at the chilly barbecue she has organised it seems like a visualisation of the contradiction between her efficient businesswoman and her striving for authenticity. Like Laura, Gina seems to represent the two twilight Western characters in a single conflicted character.
In the third episode, Beth (Kristen Stewart) wears clothes that look as tired as she is. Meanwhile, Lily Gladstone as the ranch hand is dressed for manual work but looks lively and alert (for the moment anyway). Both Wendy Ide in the Observer and A. O. Scott in the New York Times comment on Kristen Stewart’s performance. Ide argues that we know her performance is exceptional but it’s hard to figure out what she does. Scott makes the point that she successfully conveys the character’s tiredness and despair, but still retains enough of the glamour that appeals to the ranch hand. In terms of the ‘anti’ twilight Western however, the ranch hand who is closest to the land and open to the romanticism of the myth of the West is the one who is going to suffer. The other three characters all seem aware that they are attempting to ‘make it’ in the contemporary Western scenario, but so far are still trapped in their mythical roles or are unsure how far they have escaped them. You might wonder why I haven’t mentioned the male characters in the film. There are two significant male roles, both of which have a narrative importance, but one of which is so inconsequential as a character that I didn’t realise his significance until after the screening. There is also a dog (there often is in a Reichardt film). I didn’t know there were corgis in the US. They don’t look well-adapted for ranch work, but Wikipedia tells me they are bred as ‘herding dogs’ (see the trailer below). I chose the German trailer as the best on offer for this blog.
I had to travel for four hours to see Certain Women – not as far as Kristen Stewart’s character, but it would be good if distributors and exhibitors had a bit more faith in films like this. There’s a good reason why Kelly Reichardt excites cinephiles. She makes films that make you think – and feel.
I expect that some audiences will be disappointed/baffled by Night Moves – because they won’t get the thriller they were expecting from promo material like the poster above. On the other hand director Kelly Reichardt’s fans will know what to expect and should ‘enjoy’ the film. I use the scare quotes because Ms Reichardt’s films are clever and satisfying exercises in constructing a certain kind of narrative around various themes. The big shock here is that Michelle Williams is not in the cast and, despite Dakota Fanning’s expertise, I did miss Ms Williams.
Night Moves is a film about ‘ecological activists’ and the title refers to a boat, a motor launch, with that name. If I understood the dialogue exchanges, ‘Night Moves’ does indeed refer to the Arthur Penn film noir from 1975 (there is a discussion of movie titles that I couldn’t completely follow but the previous owner of the boat was a film fan). I haven’t seen that film since it came out and I don’t remember much except that I think it was the film in which a character describes an Eric Rohmer film as being “like watching paint dry” – an ironic comment on some of the pauses in the Reichardt film? In this new film, the boat’s name might be seen as describing the central moment in the narrative when the three ‘eco warriors’ attempt to blow up a dam in Oregon (to protest about the excessive power usage in the US and the diverting of water for golf courses). This is the basis of the ‘thriller’, but mostly I think Reichardt doesn’t play it as a thriller. In fact, I think she plays it as a story about guilt with the central character Josh (Jesse Eisenberg) as a possible film noir hero, a form of ‘doomed man’. Nick was with me and he disagreed – he didn’t like the film and was irritated by what Reichardt was doing with the thriller tropes.
This is a long shot I know, but at one point the location switches to ‘Medford, Oregon’. If you’ve seen Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity, you’ll know that the witness who places Fred McMurray at the scene of the crime is a “Medford man. Medford, Oregon”. Since Reichardt used a similar kind of reference in Wendy and Lucy (a man reading a specific novel), I’m tempted to see these two references (i.e. with the boat’s name) to films noir as deliberate pointers. The three activists comprise Josh/Eisenberg, a worker on an organic family homestead, Dena (Dakota Fanning), a rich girl working in a bathhouse/hot tub establishment and Harmon (Peter Sarsgard), an ex-Marine whose ‘day job’ I didn’t catch but he is clearly the ‘professional’ here.
Kelly Reichardt sticks to her established methods in this film. She doesn’t explain everything about the characters. We have to slowly glean bits of narrative information. Equally she doesn’t spell out the theme and give us clear arguments to follow. We are shown the Pacific North West in all its Autumn glory in the forests, on the hills and in the valleys. We also experience the impact of the dams and flooded valley when ‘Night Moves’ is steered past the rotting tall trees whose roots are now deep underwater. When we get a debate about ecology and political action it is played obliquely at the breakfast table of the organic farm as well as via a campaign film screened on a sheet in a pop-up cinema. On both occasions, Josh is a silent observer – Eisenberg’s performance toned down and internalised so that it is hard to know what Josh thinks. The suspense in the film is evident in the act itself but don’t go expecting explosions the aftermath of the act happens off-screen. Instead, the real suspense comes afterwards and focuses on Josh – will he fall apart, can he go back to an anonymous life? I don’t want to give away any of the later plot points – suffice to say that we do get the ‘usual’ Kelly Reichardt ending which makes you think. I thought this one was especially effective.
I’ve read various commentaries on the film and it is interesting that different audiences can produce quite different readings. One commentator clearly didn’t like it and thinks it has a very old-fashioned feel in terms of its subject matter. She also suggests that Dakota Fnning is underused and that Peter Sarsgaard is ‘lazy typecasting’. I think those are good points. I’d add that the intriguing Alia Shawkat is also wasted in a minor role. Reichardt and her writing partner Jon Raymond don’t seem that interested in the Harmon character who seems a little like a plot device (Sarsgaard is indeed typecast as a slightly sleazy character) and I did want to know more about Dena. Since Reichardt tells us very little about her three central characters, it is quite difficult to see the film as ‘character-driven’. Even Josh has no background, so we don’t know what he is giving up/can’t go back to etc. Is the film ‘dated’ in terms of its subject? Jonah Raskin, who was clearly around forty years ago expresses what might be a common response in some parts:
But the characters belong to a timeless time. I can’t imagine that an ecoterrorist in 2014 might do what Josh, Dena and Harmon do on screen. It’s also unlikely that they’d be able to buy hundreds of pounds of fertilizer to make a bomb.
Night Moves would have had a great deal more punch had it come out in 1970 at the time of the first Earth Day. Now, 44 years later, it feels like an artifact from another era.
Hmm! I can see what is being said here but I think that the 1970s feel is deliberate. I’ve already suggested that Reichardt is deliberately referencing a 1975 neo noir in Penn’s Night Moves. I think that she is also possibly evoking those paranoia thrillers from the early 1970s such as Pakula’s North West-set The Parallax View (1974), not in terms of similar stories but in that sense of a character who fears being followed and ‘found out’. I’ve not been to Oregon but I get the sense of a persistent possible alternative culture that has survived alongside US capitalism since the 1950s and possibly earlier. Reichardt and Raymond keep worrying away at how people behave in the region and this seems like a film that ‘fits’ a certain kind of auteurist take on the region. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and music composer Jeff Grace both worked on Reichardt’s earlier Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and Reichardt does her own editing so there is a strong collaborative approach to the story. What will they choose next, I wonder?
Kelly Reichardt’s new film Night Moves opens tomorrow and it seemed an appropriate moment to go back to one of her earlier (critical) successes. Ms Reichardt is in some ways an ‘old school’ independent filmmaker in the US. I’d only seen Meek’s Cutoff, which I liked very much, before watching Wendy and Lucy, so researching what she did earlier and how she has presented herself as a filmmaker since the 1990s has been an interesting experience.
Go to IMDB and there is no ‘biography’ for Kelly Reichardt. You have to read the interviews and articles on the more indy-orientated websites to learn that she left what she describes as the “cultural desert” of her Florida childhood to go to university in Boston. Now she teaches film as well as making her own films – primarily with writing partner Jon Raymond in Oregon. Her formative experiences in the art cinemas of the Boston area and her own classroom explorations seem to have been with the films of Fassbinder, Ozu, Bresson etc. and is intriguing to think that she has mostly worked on very American stories.
Wendy and Lucy is set in small town Oregon with a very simple outline narrative. Wendy Carroll (Michelle Williams) arrives in the small town in her beat-up Honda Accord with just her dog Lucy and a couple of bags of clothes. She appears to be on her way to Alaska where she hopes to find a job. But her journey is halted when first she discovers her car won’t start and then she manages to lose her dog. Much of the central part of the (quite short) film is taken up by the search for the dog – and a place to sleep when her car is impounded. It doesn’t sound much but the film is so skilfully constructed (Reichardt edits as well as directs) that it is always worth watching. Wendy is played by the astonishing Michelle Williams. I had to keep reminding myself that this is the same actress who can convince me that she is Marilyn Monroe. Here she is completely believable as the woman who suffers from one setback after another after making a single mistake.
Kelly Reichardt has discussed Wendy and Lucy in terms of Italian neo-realism. I can see the logic of this, though I didn’t think about neo-realism as I watched the film. I suppose I reflected on the use of long shots and the detailed observation of the minutiae of Wendy’s routines. I did think about European social realist filmmaking – but also about the American small town setting. On reflection, the images of the potential hostility of these small towns – even in the beautiful setting of the Pacific North West – is something that seems familiar from American literature as well as certain more mainstream films. Bizarrely the first film I thought of was Rambo (First Blood, 1982) and the initial reception given to the Sylvester Stallone character. I hope it’s not too fanciful but Rambo is a returning Vietnam vet entering a small town in Washington state. He is treated with mistrust and shown the door immediately. Wendy faces similar prejudices and also unwisely becomes entangled with the police. Reichardt grew up with a police officer father so it was odd that one aspect of Wendy’s arrest proved the only point when I doubted the ‘truth’ of the story.
At one point Wendy visits a fast-food restaurant and we see a man reading Ken Kesey’s 1964 novel Sometimes a Great Notion. This is an interesting element in the film’s mise en scène. Seen as one of the most important literary works coming out of the American North West, the book was adapted as a film directed by and starring Paul Newman and released at the end of 1970. Set in Oregon it features a family logging business – an ‘independent’ outfit that keeps producing lumber when the local unionised workforce goes on strike. This appears to be an admirable tactic in the context of US politics but from a UK perspective I found watching the film quite difficult despite the excellent cast. Perhaps I didn’t really understand it back then? What does it mean to Kelly Reichardt, I wonder? I mention the reference because Wendy and Lucy has been taken by many critics to be a commentary of some kind on American society in the latter part of George Bush’s presidency and on the cusp of the economic crash.
The film shows Wendy literally on the margins and finding it difficult to move forward. Several commentators have pointed to a crucial scene in which Wendy is given a small gift of a few dollars by the one character who has actually tried to help her. This is indeed an emotional moment. At other times we see Wendy counting the money she carries in a belt around her midriff. She isn’t actually destitute, she has enough to get ‘home’ to Indiana (?) where here notebook records that she started her journey. But apart from a phone conversation with her (rather unfriendly) sister we learn little about the life that Wendy has left behind. The small town at the centre of the story once had a mill, but now jobs are hard to find. There are still flashes of humanity in the responses to Wendy’s predicament but overall people seem to have ‘pulled up the drawbridge’. I should note however that some audiences have seen the film more from the perspective of Wendy’s loneliness than the evidence of insularity and lack of community shown by the townspeople (like all of us perhaps?).
Wendy and Lucy is of course a road movie and that raises expectations. Road movies are both supposed to ‘test’ their protagonists via new adventures and new relationships and to provide the means to escape and self-discovery. While the town itself is nondescript, the romance of Oregon is represented by the railway yards, the single track running through the trees and gorges, the sound of the train whistle and the camaraderie of the temporary camp for travellers. For an 80 minute film that at first glance offers a slight narrative, Wendy and Lucy actually delivers quite a rich viewing experience. I suspect that I will get more from it the next time I watch it.
Press Notes available here.
The official US trailer:
Beauty is suddenly back in the cinema. Following Norwegian Wood this is another film to invite the audience to experience the beauty of landscape. This is a harsh beauty in terms of its inhospitable face presented to travellers, but the magical light of early morning and evening sun is breathtaking – reminding us of films with similar settings (although in different landscapes) such as Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.
Kelly Reichardt’s film (she co-wrote, directed and edited Meek’s Cutoff) recounts a journey by hopeful settlers across the wild country of the Cascades in Oregon territory during the 1840s. Three couples have hired a guide with local knowledge called Stephen Meek to take them on a route that will shortcut the main Oregon trail – thus Meek’s ‘cutoff’. Other than a boy, who is the son of one couple, and their oxen and horses, this is the totality of the party – until they come across a lone Cayuse ‘Indian’. At this point they fear that they are lost and they are suspicious of Meek’s ability to get them through this country. Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) is particularly assertive within the group and her contempt for Meek and his reaction to the Cayuse becomes an important narrative element.
The print I saw was digital and the detail of the image was at times breathtaking. In one early scene a character leans forward towards the camera to fill a water container and the effect is almost 3D-like. I felt that I could reach out and put my hand in the water. It was only later that I realised how important that water was going to be in the narrative. This high level of visual realism is framed in Academy ratio (1:1.33). An unusual choice in modern cinema and Reichardt has explained that it represents the restricted view of the female characters – i.e. from beneath their bonnets. This is an interesting idea and it certainly serves to mark a difference from the films which have presented the Western landscape in CinemaScope since the mid-1950s (as well as the earlier Fox Grandeur widescreen The Big Trail from 1930 – one of the first representations of the wagon trains on the Oregon trail). Academy means vertical compositions and a feeling of containment rather than the ‘open-ness’ of ‘Scope. Two technical issues raised questions for me. The first was simply to wonder how multiplexes have got on projecting the film since I remember seeing Academy prints of classic films which had been ‘topped and tailed’ to fit onto the 1:1.85 screen in many cinemas. (Most good independent cinemas are properly prepared to show Academy ratios.) The second was to query the sound design. I had some problems with the dialogue and the directionality of some of the sound effects – as if the Academy ratio was a problem with stereo sound design. Has anyone else experienced this?
As to the film’s narrative, I’ve read that Reichardt and her collaborators were not particularly familiar with previous films on the same topic. (See the Sight and Sound coverage (May 2011). The film was motivated more by Reichardt’s discovery of the landscape when she was researching an earlier film – and by her co-writer Jon Raymond’s research into the local history of the region which turned up the Meek character. But Reichardt certainly was aware of the ways in which Westerns have traditionally marginalised women and her focus on the three women working together is clear. In some ways however I think that film pushes more towards allegory than social history. It made me re-think my own experience of watching Westerns and why I didn’t more forcefully resist the casual sexism and more blatant racism of so many Western narratives. In a typically solid summary of women’s roles in Westerns by Ed Buscombe (in the same issue of Sight and Sound), he mentions both Ford’s Wagonmaster and the TV series Wagon Train which I watched regularly in the 1950s. As Buscombe points out, the series format and the need for new narrative material meant that the TV representations of the wagon train were more likely to feature domestic scenes and it is interesting to see how Reichardt’s vision makes the collecting of kindling, cooking, sewing etc. much more realistic and much more part of the trail experience. The framings also emphasise this with the women often in central positions when the group is viewed in relation to the landscape (i.e. when they are discussing which way to go). Her women are clearly part of the survival discourse of the film and the interaction between Emily and the Cayuse demonstrates this. She is repelled by his stench, but she mends his moccasin. She explains this as a pragmatic decision but it is also suggestive of her humanity, her compassion and perhaps her sense of justice because of the way he is being treated by Meek. Jon Raymond refers to Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian as an inspiration and I can see that in some of the interactions between characters and with the landscape.
I suspect that some audiences will struggle with the film, partly because of the otherness of its look but mainly because of its narrative. In the goal-orientated fictional worlds of Hollywood, the ‘end is always in sight’ but Reichardt is much more interested in the journey itself. But I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I hope she either makes another Western or that she has inspired others to explore similar territory. More please!
Here is the film’s trailer illustrating some of the points presented above: