tongue-tied lightning

The Best Films of 2011: #14 Meek’s Cutoff
February 9, 2012, 5:45 PM
Filed under: film | Tags: , , , , ,

One of the more polarizing pieces of film criticism this year was Dan Kois’s “Cultural Vegetables” piece in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. It’s a rather infuriating apologia for philistinism, just glancing over it as a reminder makes my head want to explode much the same way I feel watching the Republican presidential debates and could send me off on a tangent I’ll try to hold back on. The point here being, it centers around his experience with Meek’s Cutoff which he claims he found himself thinking about frequently after watching it but was terminally bored by in the theater. On the contrary, I’ve found it incredibly engaging both times I’ve watched it but as soon as it’s over the experience feels diminished somehow.

Let’s focus on the former for the time being. The most apparent aspect of the film is its unusual aspect ratio. Reichardt has said in interviews she intended it to replicate what the women observe from under their bonnets and thereby underscore the film’s feminine point of view. It’s not the only example of this, when the men gather to make important decisions the camera observes them in longshot, while reaction shots of Michelle Williams and Zoe Kazan straining to hear what they’re talking about much like ourselves usually consist of close or medium shots. However, the decision to shoot in academy ratio also adds a great deal of suspense to the film. If ever a landscape was meant to be shot in scope it’s the plains and deserts of the west. The boxy frame lends a claustrophobic air to the open surroundings, a constant feeling (especially later in the film when danger is more palpable) that something important is just outside your reach, if you could only see a little more to the right or left of the frame.

The film generates a rather large amount of conflict from what is more or less a minimalist rendering of The Oregon Trail. I’m not sure all the hours spent hunched over an Apple II in our Elementary School’s computer lab ever really made clear to me just how devastating a broken axle would’ve been to the pioneers. One of the year’s most edge-of-your-seat suspense sequences involves them slowly lowering three wagons, one after another, down a steep grade via a primitive rope and pulley system. There is a somewhat obvious allegorical political aspect, as there often seems to be in Kelly Reichardt’s films (a scene involving a righteous Christian was one of the weaker moments of 2008’s Wendy and Lucy) but I don’t find it terribly interesting so we’ll let it go at that. My lone complaint about the film is that the ambiguous ending doesn’t feel entirely earned, which perhaps accounts for the film’s feeling lesser in retrospect than it does while I’m watching it.


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