Kelly Reichardt’s latest feature film, Meek’s Cutoff is a beguiling period piece drenched in atmosphere and quiet dramatic moments which, slowly but surely, unfurl into profound developments and realisations.
Meek’s Cutoff takes place on the famous Oregon Trail in 1845 and concerns a wagon train of settlers led by self-aggrandising charlatan Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) who cannot – and will not – admit he and his charges are completely lost.
After abandoning plans to shoot Wendy and Lucy (2008) in a desert locale, Reichardt found her imagination still haunted by the landscape. Writing partner Jon Raymond discovered a ‘based on true events’ story which utilised the setting perfectly. “The themes seemed really contemporary to American life at the time we were filming,” Reichardt points out.
The intense thirty-four day shoot in the Oregon desert offered zero comforts to actors more used to star treatment and the obligatory trailer. The whole production unit stayed in a motel in the middle of nowhere. During filming, members of the crew caught heat stroke and an actor suffered hypothermia.
“Relating to the story was not one of our hardships, I would say. The extremes of the weather and the extremes of getting to these remote shooting locations, it was very intense. We were shooting where the immigrants were really lost. It was a prickly environment and rattlesnake territory. You find beauty in the hardship or you don’t, which in that case, you’re just screwed!”
Such is the growing clout of director Reichardt the project attracted several notable actors such as Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Michelle Williams (star of Wendy and Lucy) and Shirley Henderson.
Major efforts were undertaken to recreate historical details and the journey itself, which allowed no time for improvisation and off-the-cuff moments captured on screen. It looks like an improvised, naturalistic movie given the lack of typical narrative action, but appearances are deceitful.
“People have said ‘oh, it looks so improv’d’. We’d be digging up the road for an hour then laying dolly tracks. There was no chance to wing it. The landscape and the animals and the weather were all unpredictable. It has its own life force. We had no time for improvisation. We planned and we planned and we planned. You can’t really wing it when you have six oxen!”
With its death crawl pace and ever increasing sense of desperation, Meek’s Cutoff, at times, holds the ambience of a horror film.
“Right… that, I think, is more to do with elements that put you in the mindset for genre and expectations. You know, for things to come, and when those things don’t come, those big moments, there’s something unsettling about that.”
It has been claimed as a feminist western but Reichardt doesn’t see things quite so neatly. “I just think it’s different. Especially in a period piece where it’s usually presented from the white male perspective – the straight white male perspective – it has to be put into a category for some reason, as if it’s something special. It’s just not a male perspective.”
What unfolds over a gruelling one hour and forty-six minutes is a doom-filled dissection of class, gender and race while striking western genre poses.
Director Kelly Reichardt is an exciting new voice in American independent cinema. She’s already plotting another film with Jon Raymond, but won’t say a word. “Jon and I are writing a script together and I’m going to live with it in my secret world for now.”
Meek’s Cutoff is released in UK cinemas from 15th April
Interview and article by Martyn Conterio