Festival Daily
24 July 2011
Day 4 - A Different Kind of Western

Among this year's retrospectives is a programme that offers a Soviet take on a very American genre: the Western. Included in the line-up are Nikita Mikhalkov's Leone-influenced debut, At Home Among Strangers, a Stranger at Home and The Seventh Bullet which, like so many Red Westerns of the late 1960s and early 1970s, borrowed heavily from The Magnificent Seven.

The programme also features screenings of Red Western classics such as White Sun of the Desert, The Sons of Great Bear, Chingachook, the Great Snake, and even a Roy Rogers style musical western, Lemonade Joe or Horse Opera. Together, the films are fascinating documents of how the Western was perceived beyond America's borders.

And yet, the strangest western screening in the festival was not shot in the USSR, Yugoslavia, Poland or Czechoslovakia. It was made in the US by one of the doyens of the current independent cinema scene.

Meek's Cutoff is the remarkable third feature by Kelly Reichardt. It may not fit the classic western mould, but in terms of iconography, it features as many hallmarks of the genre as a film by John Ford or Howard Hawks. There are guns, wagons, a Native American and a vast, empty landscape. What sets the film apart from other westerns is the way that Reichardt applies the style she employed for her two earlier, modern features (Wendy and Lucy, and Old Joy) to a story set in the 19th century. It makes strange a hitherto familiar world.

A small group of homesteaders have decided to move west, along the Oregon Trail, in the hope of a better life. Leading them is Stephen Meek, a caricature of the wild frontiersman in the mould of Wild Bill Hickock. His claim to know the country like the back of his hand proves to be the party's undoing.

The film opens with the small wagon train progressing slowly through an arid landscape. It soon becomes clear that Meek has lost his way. The further the group travel, the more an atmosphere of despair surrounds them. To compound their problems, any fears over the lack of food and drinking water is soon eclipsed by the appearance of a Native American. His motives are unclear. He seems to pose no threat, even offering his help at one point. Moreover, he seems genuinely fascinated by these oddly attired people. But to most of the group he is a symbol of the precariousness of this dangerous and barren world.

Like her previous features, Reichardt's film is a road movie of sorts. Her dialogue is sparse - the opening ten minutes is almost silent - and it is shot with a muted palette. Even the smallest hints of colour in the women's dresses soon disappears, dulled by dust from the trail.

The cast, which includes Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson and Neal Huff are uniformly excellent. But it is the central relationship, played out between Michelle Williams as the tough Emily, Bruce Greenwood as Meek and Ron Rondeaux as the Native American, that makes the film so riveting. These three hold the balance of power and, with it, the fate of the group. And though little may appear to take place as the film plays out, when the closing credits roll, the start of this small group's journey seems a whole lifetime away.

Ian Haydn Smith
International Film Guide

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