MEEK’S CUTOFF ***1/2
There are differences between films that are long, films that are slow, films that are boring and films that are infuriating, and it is interesting to watch Meek’s Cutoff in the immediate wake of The Tree of Life. Terrence Malick’s bloated, expensive and ambitious film was long, slow, boring and infuriating, whereas Kelly Reichardt’s extremely modest film Meek’s Cutoff is slow, but it is also intriguing, moving and meaningful. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, and it probably requires being in the right mood (contemplative and relaxed is the way to go), but it offers many rewards for what is at times arduous viewing. The extremely (at least on the surface) story follows a small group of settlers heading through Oregon in 1845, guided by one Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who has promised to lead them to rich land via a “cutoff”, or shortcut, that he claims can deliver them there in two weeks. Complications arise when those weeks pass and they have not reached their destination, and the settlers begin to worry that Meek, who is an egotistical, self-promoting blowhard, has no idea of where he’s taking them. Tensions are further stretched when the group becomes aware of a Native American (Rod Rondeaux, billed as “The Indian” in recognition of the sensibilities of the era) who may or may not be following them. The small group of settlers – only seven in all, three couples and a child – now have two individuals with whom to be alternately suspicious and afraid of, and a huge theme in the movie is that of trust: in the case of Meek, trust in someone who, as each day passes, is proving less and less deserving of it, and in the case of The Indian, trust in someone with whom each member of the group holds the prejudices of the time. Meek’s personality – which includes more blatant bigotry towards “Indians”, against whom he holds many personal grudges culled from a supposed and increasingly unlikely sounding personal history of danger and adventure – does not help matters.
It is fascinating to watch this somewhat post-modern, and certainly original, examination of the misunderstandings between “cowboys and Indians” played out on such an intimate scale (it would make a surreal and revealing double bill with The Searchers). There are only nine actors in the movie, accompanied by their horses, steer and three covered wagons, placed against the arid, sunbaked, pitiless Oregon landscape through which they trudge. It is up to them to keep the big ideas in the film buoyant enough for our interest to be sustained at feature length, and they are not helped by Reichardt’s absolute minimal use of close ups (nor is Greenwood aided by Meek’s massive bushy beard and huge mane of hair, which, combined with the shadow of his large hat, often reduce our visibility of his actual face to a cypher). But Reichardt’s ace in the hole is Michelle Williams, whose character Emily Tetherow is the anchor of the film; Williams is emerging as one of the finest, and most authentic, screen actors, and her obvious intelligence allows her to communicate vast amounts of interior thought through the often unspoken shots that Reichardt favours. They’ve worked together before, in the just as modest (and even more affecting) Wendy and Lucy (2008) and they display all the signs of being one of those perfect director/actor marriages, whereby the performer is able to understand exactly what the director wants to get across, and, somehow, can display it in as little as a look – even in mid-or-long shot. It is also great to see one of my favourite “oddball” character actors, Will Patton, in the considered, thoughtful and definitely un-oddball role of Solomon, Emily’s older husband and the default leader of the settlers, and Paul Dano, the acting whizz-kid from Little Miss Sunshine and There Will Be Blood, who takes a very modest role, obviously because he liked Reichardt, the script, and his fellow performers.
There are slightly infuriating elements to Reichardt’s direction that seem almost deliberately provocative. She has incredible landscapes within which to frame her exotic settlers, in their covered wagons, pioneer hats and (most touchingly) white bonnets, yet she shoots – stubbornly, it feels – in the old fashioned ratio of 4:3, as if to constantly remind us that this is not your father’s western. It is a choice that feels selfish rather than interesting – something that she wanted to do but which definitely deprives us of all the rich pleasure that could have lived to either side of the screen in a wider format (it is also just weird watching a modern movie, in a modern movie house, in that format – the cinema I saw it in could’t even close its’ side curtains tight enough to frame the image properly, so there were two black bars visible on either side of the frame, making the thing feel a little like projected television). She has – I’m assuming deliberately – allowed much of the dialogue to be muffled and hard to catch; the choice seems to be to echo the actual audibility of the characters to one another (such as when the men discuss matters just out of earshot of the women), but it may frustrate some viewers. By eschewing close ups for so much of the film, she denies us traditional intimacy, and when you’ve got the quality of actors assembled here, the approach, although deliberate, seems a little churlish; finally, there’s that abundance of hair on Meek’s face and head, making the chief protagonist of the film visually obtuse. Again, this is obviously an extremely deliberate choice, making Meek as much of an enigma to us as to the settlers, but, again, some viewers might just find it annoying. Reichardt is a stylistic, expressionistic, bold, original and stubborn filmmaker, and her style and methods will simply not be to everyone’s taste. And yes, the film is slow – but it is not boring or infuriating. It is thoughtful, extremely well acted, and presents a very original and fresh take on a trope that goes back to the very first days of narrative cinema, in one of cinema’s original genres. The moments of suspense scattered throughout the film are extremely tense, and there are shots of Williams doing what she does so incredibly well – portraying her character’s turmoil or resolve wordlessly and beautifully – that are so beautifully etched that, despite the film’s essential simplicity, I think I’ll want to see it again.
THE HUMAN RESOURCES MANAGER ** 1/2
Eran Riklis’ adaptation of Abraham B. Jehoshua’s novel, which was Israel’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Oscars, follows a strange trajectory. It starts out with a phenomenally strong dramatic question concerning corporate and personal responsibility: a woman, killed in a suicide bomber’s blast in Jerusalem, and who had three weeks earlier been let go from employment at Israel’s largest bakery, is discovered by a journalist to have still been on the bakery’s payroll; when the bakery’s Human Resources Manager (the excellent Mark Ivanir, who will almost certainly become a bit of an international star after this) investigates, he discovers a secret which exposes the company to a potential public relations disaster. Dogged by a tabloid journalist, dealing with a divorce and the mercurial “widow head” of the corporation, his moral, ethical and professional dilemma is powerful, tangible and interesting. Unfortunately, the resolution of said dilemma is not the climax but only the kicking off point of what becomes a road movie that weirdly combines elements of everything from Little Miss Sunshine to Leon The Pig Farmer. The never-named Human Resources Manager soon finds himself accompanying the woman’s coffin from Jerusalem to Romania, and then to a tiny village on a thousand kilometre journey in a van, accompanied by a crew including the journalist, a couple of Romanian eccentrics and the woman’s estranged son (a respectable Noah Silver, whose initially one-note performance gives way, eventually, to a complexity almost manages to enrich the movie to another level). While the locations and faces along the way are never less than exotic (and how many movies have you seen that take place in Israel and Romania?), the long, long journey that makes up the bulk of the film is bizarrely undramatic: with the Human Resources Manager’s mind pretty much made up as to how to deal with his situation, we are left with not much more than somewhat quirky (but never actually comic) episodes along the way to what we can all predict is coming. It’s a sad irony that a movie that starts so startlingly and surprisingly should end exactly as we might expect it to.