The Western is back! Final thoughts on TIFF '10

Michelle Williams in "Meek's Cutoff."

When I interviewed director Kelly Reichardt at the 2008 Toronto Film Festival about her gut-wrenching masterpiece Wendy & Lucy (2008), she spoke of watching many old Westerns in preparation for her next project. She delivered the exquisite Meek's Cutoff at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival. The film follows three families as they make their trek along the Oregon Trail circa 1845. As they follow their hired mountain man through the Cascade Mountains they start to question if their leader really knows where he is leading them. And when they come across a Cayuse American Indian, the emigrants are forced to question who to trust. While Wendy & Lucy seemed inspired by the Italian Neo-Realists Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini, Meek's Cutoff draws upon cinema's earliest documentaries, like Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922).

Collaborator Jon Raymond, who also wrote Reichardt's Old Joy (2006) and Wendy & Lucy, uncovered the infamous story of Meek's Cutoff while doing local research in Oregon. The tale seems perfect for Reichardt's distinctive visual storytelling by exploring humble characters who are confronting everyday troubles while taking a journey outside of their natural habitat. The striking style strips down her character's actions and allows the viewer to feel the weight of each procedure. Since Reichardt emphasizes her camera over dialogue, the solitary result can culminate in a truly transcendental experience for a viewer, while for others (like at the press screening in Toronto) a long nap. Somehow the fact that a film can evoke such extreme yet internal reactions conjures up the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu and most recently, Claire Denis.
With the rare exception of William Wellman's brutal epic Westward the Women (1951), based on a story by Frank Capra, Meek's Cutoff offers one of few female points of view towards the migration of early pioneers. While researching for the film, Reichardt read many old diaries, which women mainly wrote during the time period. These diaries uncovered the immense loneliness that women felt, one of which found a wife writing she was keeping a diary in case her husband should ever want to know her. Michelle Williams (actress of the year with her combined profound performances in Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine, Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island, and now Meek's Cutoff) leads the way even with very subtle and minimal interactions.

While Meek's Cutoff contextualizes the misrepresentation of women in the Western, it also confronts how the American Indian has been misunderstood on the silver screen with a beautifully nuanced debut performance by Rod Rondeaux, whose prior credits are 35 films working as a stuntman in films like James Mangold's 3:10 To Yuma (2007) and Chris Eyre's Skins (2002). Yet, much like Wellman's Westward the Women, the dynamics between characters feels very contrary to most other Westerns. Screenwriter Raymond explained at Toronto, "Instead of being clearly centered on the individual, the community is the main character, with all the tensions and contradictions inherent in any community."  

The Western genre seems to have been overlooked this past couple of decades by younger audiences, in the mainstream as well as the art crowd. Yet with David Milch's HBO series Deadwood (2004), John Hillcoat's The Proposition (2005), Andrew Dominik's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and the Coen Brothers' upcoming remake of True Grit (2010) hot on their heels of their Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men (2007), there seems to be something more complex in these revisionist films that attempt to revise any previous re-visioning. (Neo-Revisionism?) Are they allegories exposing our country's 250 year confusion with “illegal” border crossings? Are they dissecting our current political transitions between administrations? Or are they just giving us a more realistic look at the individual pioneers who helped "settle" the Wild, Wild West? However you view it, Kelly Reichardt's quiet, unassuming journey does so by being the best film of 2010. (The Pacific Film Archive is showcasing Kelly Reichardt with a retrospective November 11-13; Reichardt will appear in person.)

Top Eleven Films from The 2010 Toronto Film Festival

1. Meek's Cutoff - Kelly Reichardt (USA)

2. Another Year - Mike Leigh (UK)

3. Hell Roaring Creek - Lucien Castaing-Taylor (USA)

4. A Useful Life - Federico Veiroj (Spain/Uruguay)

5. Boxing Gym - Frederick Wiseman (USA)

6. Leap Year - Michael Rowe (Mexico)

7. Kaboom! - Gregg Araki (USA)

8. The Illusionist - Sylvain Chomet (based on a Jacques Tati screenplay) (UK/France)

9. You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger - Woody Allen (UK)

10. Black Swan - Darren Aronofsky - (USA)

11. Essential Killing - Jerzy Skolimowski - (Poland)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks is the Film History Coordinator at the Academy of Art University and programs MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS, a monthly series at the Castro Theatre that celebrates dismissed, underrated, and overlooked cinema.