With Meek's Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt makes the case that she deserves to be considered among the best American filmmakers.
As slender as Old Joy but no less packed with suggestion, Wendy and Lucy is an assured piece of filmmaking. Reichardt is frequently tagged as a minimalist, but that shortchanges her aesthetic. Wendy and Lucy (as with all her movies) brims with grace notes: the ghostly faces of vagrants by a campfire, a pillow shot of birds on a wire against a deep blue sky, the plaintive melody (written by Oldham) Wendy hums throughout the movie. The lapidary sound design is rich with flourishes. Every so often in the distance, we hear the passing of trains, fleeting taunts of escape deferred.
Wendy and Lucy feels almost prescient now with its snapshot of the American underclass. (It was filmed before the economic collapse.) But this isn't a sensationalized portrait of the poor. There is something almost matter-of-fact in the depiction of Wendy's predicament; the slow accretion of unexpected costs and unfortunate turns reflects the way many Americans descend into poverty. Reichardt's respect for the quotidian makes Wendy's plight all the more devastating—that Walgreen's parking lot she loiters in could well be the one down the street. The performances, all stellar (is there a more adventurous actress today than Williams?), have a lived-in quality, naturalism that never calls attention to itself.
Meek's Cutoff might share with Wendy and Lucy Michelle Williams as star and a theme of Americans adrift, but it is undoubtedly a departure for the director. Still handmade by studio standards, it is certainly bigger than her previous movies. (This was not made by a crew of eight camping in the wild, as Old Joy was.)
But beyond the larger canvas, there is something else here, a thrilling and unexpected undercurrent. Williams plays Emily, one of the wives in the caravan, who emerges as the nemesis of the bumbling guide Meek. Her modern, even anachronistic mien contrasts sharply with the blustery fool's. Both are unique in Reichardt's cinema, larger-than-life characters who stake a claim to the foreground and refuse to budge. With Emily, Reichardt seems to be moving beyond the desultoriness and diffidence of her past protagonists: This is her most strong-willed character yet, a woman who refuses to take the blows of circumstance and environment without hitting back.
Combined with the unmistakably allegorical scenario—arrogant cowboy leads his people into endless desert—Meek's Cutoff emerges as Reichardt's boldest movie yet. The wordless gesture and the murmured doubt are still present, but as part of a more combustible mix. There is a defiance here that is new to Reichardt's cinema. The assertiveness becomes her, and it's only fitting for an artist who may be on the verge of venturing into uncharted territory herself.
Elbert Ventura is managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas.
Photograph of Kelly Reichardt by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images. Clips from Old Joy © Kino International 2006; Wendy and Lucy © Oscilloscope Pictures 2008; Meek's Cutoff © Oscilloscope Pictures 2010. All rights reserved.