"This is a film whose story turns on one character's offer to repair another's shoe, the implications of this small act weighted so as to hold you in hushed fascination through every stitch," writes Guy Lodge at In Contention. "If, then, [Kelly] Reichardt remains an astute chronicler of what happens when nothing happens, Meek's Cutoff affords the director her largest canvas yet on which to ruminate. A 19th century-set Western covering the most severe and spectacular stretches of the Oregon Trail to transfixingly beautiful effect, the film expands its focus from the selective character studies of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy to ponder the fates of three families and two bookended individuals, miles from a home that does not yet exist.... Malick would have been proud to conjure the rhapsodic visuals on display here, as cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, often shooting in dusky half-light or lantern-lit darkness, scrutinizes the Oregon landscape with a keen eye worthy of the painter Andrew Wyeth; the dust-smeared pastel palette is gloriously counter-intuitive, as is Reichardt's unusual decision to shoot these seemingly infinite vistas in the Academy ratio, making sky as looming a threat as earth."
"90 minutes in, I was surprised to note how not-bored I was," admits Stephanie Zacharek at Movieline. "And by the end, the austerity and directness of Reichardt's vision had won me over, as, damn it, it usually does. In the context of Reichardt's notoriously low-budget aesthetic, Meek's Cutoff features a veritable all-star cast, including Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan, as well as the movie's true north, Michelle Williams (also the star, and heart, of Reichardt's superb 2008 feature Wendy and Lucy.) Greenwood, hidden beneath a rangy thicket of facial hair and wearing a fringed and authentically dirty buckskin jacket, channels his inner Jeff Bridges to play Stephen Meek, the pioneers' guide, a guy who appears to know everything about the uncharted territory he's leading these sturdy but not immortal people into.... Williams is Mrs Tetherow — she has a first name, Emily, but it's rarely used — the settler wife who deeply mistrusts Meek. When she glowers at him from beneath that sunbonnet, hoo boy, she means business."
"Based on a true story and loosely inspired by diaries kept by women at the time, Jon Raymond's lean script never emphasizes any modern-day parallels, though deeper allegorical readings are there for the taking," suggests Justin Chang in Variety. "If Wendy and Lucy expressed quiet anguish for the plight of America's poor and dispossessed, Meek's Cutoff confronts us with a scenario of manifest destiny at a moral crossroads, forcing its characters — and the viewer — to determine whether the glaring, dark-skinned outsider or the blustering white leader poses the greater threat. This conundrum is sustained up until an ending that will frustrate some, but for those in step with the filmmakers' intentions, it's clear the film could end in no other way."
Meek's Cutoff will screen in Toronto on September 14, 16 and 19 and at the New York Film Festival on October 8 and 9.
Update: Colleen Barry reports on the press conference for the AP. A few quotes from Kelly Reichardt: "I am a big fan of Westerns, of Nicholas Ray and Monte Hellman and Anthony Mann, and I love the way those films are sort of styled and shot, and the use of landscape. But a lot of the themes are completely unrelatable to me." Meek's Cutoff is "really about labor and space and stillness. So my challenge was to find how the stillness could act in a dramatic way." On Rod Rondeaux's role as the stranger: "The thing of avoiding cliches is really hard. I mean as soon as you are putting a Native American in front of a blue sky with a bare chest and beads on, you start to have a heart attack. 'Oh, my. What am I doing?' At the same time, you don't want to avoid it. The story is told from the point of view of white immigrants."
Updates, 9/6: "It's a film which has something of The Searchers in its DNA," finds the Guardian's Peter Bradshaw, "and could also be compared to Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, and there are even sense-memories of the children's pioneer classic Little House on the Prairie, although in much grimmer form. In its severity and gloom it reminded me of something Gilbert Adair wrote about John Sayles's austere movie Limbo, that it was a sort of North American movie-making which had managed to expunge every smidgen of Hollywood glitz."
"On one viewing, it's tough to pinpoint the film's specific intentions," finds David Jenkins in Time Out London. "It could be read as a number of things. Is it a feminist slant on the western? A simple chronicle of the suffering of immigrants in the US? A film that lambasts our desire for material goods? Or even a sparse study of the sublime indifference of nature towards our desire for self-preservation? It's a film open to interpretation, but the broad themes of trust and communication stand out. Can we really accept information filtered through other minds? Does our cultural upbringing affect the way we perceive simple facts? Is there such a thing as pure truth? One might even want to see the film as a political allegory, which — to quote Bruce Springsteen — states that, 'Blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed.'"
Shane Danielsen for indieWIRE: "Here, as in Old Joy, Reichardt — who began as an experimental filmmaker — seems a little too in love with protraction for its own sake, and while this film's longeurs could be said to serve a narrative purpose (if nothing else, we certainly shared the travellers' sense of interminable distance), they also presented a serious impediment to the audience's sympathies, rendering what might have been a gripping tale of survival a rarified, self-selecting slice of Arthouse Cinema. By 40 minutes in, I looked around, blearily, to find that almost everyone in my vicinity was fast asleep."
Updates, 9/9: "Meek's Cutoff is a slow burn of a film, in which we witness a gradual and convincing shift of power and decision-making from the men of the families to the women," writes Roderick Conway Morris for the International Herald Tribune.
"Reichardt's unintuitive choice to shoot the film in an almost square TV-size format gives the immense wide open spaces of the West an uncomfortable claustrophobia, adding to a foreboding atmosphere that pervades the trek," finds Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter.
Update, 9/10: A report from Arte (you can choose to listen in French or German) with clips in the original English with Italian subtitles, via the Playlist:
Update, 9/13: "A tiny film that needs (and takes) its time to grow on the viewer," writes Boyd van Hoeij here in The Daily Notebook.
Updates, 9/16: Daniel Kasman here in The Daily Notebook: "The political allegory is blatantly apparent, but so much so that it is less interesting than the film's physical richness, human silences, and spare but telling details of activities, social groups, and weary states of mind."
"I love Reichardt's ideas," blogs the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris. "You always have the sense that hers are exactly the movies she wanted to make. They're under no obvious influence. Watching Meek's Cutoff, I did think about the bombast of a great movie about the expanding West, like Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Blood, and how this movie feels somehow, in its unpronounced finery and its denying us too much context, like something private, something remembered. Which is not to say that Reichardt is incapable of grandeur. The final shot is one of the most evocative and apt images used to capture the tragic solitude of the American West."
"Aided immeasurably by Christopher Blauvelt's gorgeously drab cinematography and a sound design by Gus Van Sant collaborator Leslie Shatz, the movie evokes the American wilderness through limited means for maximum impact," blogs Ben Kenigsberg for Time Out Chicago.
Meek's Cutoff may well land on Scott Tobias's "best-of year/decade/all-time lists. Suffice to say, it represents a great leap forward from her very fine Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy while expanding beautifully on her themes of survival, man's relationship with nature, and the terribly difficult choices people make when their options narrow. Mike D'Angelo has cleverly coined it 'Gerry on the prairie,' which is a fine description of its deliberate pace, its arid landscapes, and the way it conveys the sheer ardor of traveling on foot to a water source that's perpetually beyond the horizon. Unlike Gerry, however, Meek's Cutoff isn't a minimalist experiment, but advances a story full of tension and slow-burning suspense."
His AV Club colleague Noel Murray replies: "We'll have to chalk this one up to a sensibility split, Scott, because while I liked Meek's Cutoff, I didn't love it like you did. To me, it resembled a classic Anthony Mann western — like Bend of the River or The Far Country — only rendered with the kind of arthouse austerity and ambiguity that I resist."
"You could call it a thriller or horror movie in extreme slow motion, or a parable that's more about 2010 than 1845," writes Salon's Andrew O'Hehir. "At various moments it recalls Bertolucci's The Sheltering Sky, Erich von Stroheim's Greed and those verses from the Old Testament. No doubt it would bore many people silly, but its mood of desolation, danger and desperate faith affected me more powerfully than anything else I saw amid the onslaught of cinema at Toronto this year."
Updates, 9/18: "The story of a fragile community stranded in the desert by a fear-mongering charlatan could have been settled for facile political allegory, yet Reichardt is after something more uncanny and mysterious," writes Fernando F Croce at the House Next Door. "Filmed with a rapt severity worthy of Ermanno Olmi's The Tree of the Wooden Clogs, hers is a horror-western where the minimalist subtly grows into the hallucinatory."
"Wednesday evening's Mavericks session at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival featured Kelly Reichardt," blogs Josef Braun. "It was probably the most captivating and intimate session of its kind I've ever seen at TIFF.... Reichardt matter-of-factly tried to explain how she was acutely aware that her opportunities to make the sort of films she wants to make — the sort that are handmade, that use skeletal crews, that offer the talent no pampering whatsoever, that are shot on film despite tiny budgets, that grant the director genuine and complete independence, that reject diversion in favour of quietude, narrative dynamics in favour of close observation and emotional nuance — could evaporate at any moment. Reichardt is beloved and respected, especially amongst local cinephiles, and everyone there seemed to want to reassure her of this, yet honestly, I think her anxieties are perfectly valid."
Oscilloscope Laboratories has picked up North American distribution rights, reports indieWIRE's Peter Knegt.
Mark Olsen interviews the film's makers for the Los Angeles Times.
Update, 9/19: "Meek's Cutoff strikes me as timidity being confused for boldness." Time Out New York's Joshua Rothkopf isn't just blowing the film off; he's seen it twice and still finds it feels "redolent of the worst kind of pretentiousness, complete with sledgehammer subtext and ridiculously incoherent characters."
Update, 9/20: "What J Hoberman wrote in The Village Voice of Old Joy — that it is 'literate but not literary, crafted without ostentation, rooted in a specific place and devoted to small sensations' — is also true here," finds Time's Richard Corliss. "These are the movie's strengths and weaknesses: an uninflected attention to the minutest detail, and a minimalist's abhorrence of dramatic impact. Worthy and wearying, Meek's Cutoff stirs an admiration for the beset settlers, while begging the question of how anyone ever reached the Pacific coast."