Read it on Salon
Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
TORONTO — “Meek’s Cutoff,” which premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, is one of those movies that you’re going to make a decision about within the first minute. You’re either in or you’re out, and you’ll know which. As an opening credit stitched in embroidery tells us — and it really is embroidery, not some digital facsimile — we’re on the Oregon Trail, in 1845. Director Kelly Reichardt’s opening shot lasts at least a minute, and shows us a group of nearly indistinguishable men and women in the middle distance, wearing the shabby clothes of 19th-century emigrants, as they get their cattle and wagons across a chest-deep river.
There isn’t any talking for several more minutes, and when we finally hear a human voice, it belongs to a small boy reading aloud from the Book of Genesis. You could say that’s allegorical — reading the Old Testament while you wander through the desert — but it also isn’t. That’s very likely the only book his family brought along. “Meek’s Cutoff” feels from the beginning like one of those slow-developing, deep-focus American landscape movies, of the kind identified with director Terrence Malick (“Badlands,” “Days of Heaven”). It is, but it also isn’t. In this quiet, beautiful and terrifying fable about a group of lost pioneers, Reichardt combines epic ambition with a focus on intimate, personal detail. (At this writing, the film still has no American distribution deal.)
That embroidery at the beginning is no accident. As those figures we saw fording the river gradually move into the foreground and become characters, Reichardt begins to show us the domestic realities of life on the trail. This is a world where men make the decisions, at least officially. When it’s a question of which direction to travel or what to do with a captured Indian or whether or not to abandon Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), the grizzled and sinister mountain man who seems to have led the group hopelessly astray in the Great Basin, the wives of the three emigrant families are not consulted. But of course they’re the ones who cook and share out the food, care for the sick, mend the clothes and ruthlessly dump treasured items in the arid eastern Oregon desert, as needed.
It’s not like Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond (who also co-wrote her films “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy”) have set out to craft some feminist diatribe about Western history. There isn’t enough talking for that, and anyway Reichardt is always more concerned with getting the details right than with sending a message. Emily Tetherow, the young wife played by Michelle Williams who is more or less our leading character, unself-consciously describes the group of wives as “working like niggers” — which I guess is a political insight of a certain kind — and views the captive Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) coerced into being their guide with as much distaste and mistrust as everyone else does. But Emily’s decision to offer the Cayuse man some ordinary, practical help carries more moral weight in the film than the men’s debates about whether or not to shoot him.
If you’ve never heard of Kelly Reichardt, that’s really not your fault. She’s been making movies since the early ’90s, and getting better at it the whole time, but her minimalist, radically unfashionable style simply isn’t going to be a hot commodity in an era of perpetual distraction. In “Meek’s Cutoff” she displays a whole new level of ambition, making a period piece with an ensemble cast that features Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan and Will Patton alongside Williams, who manages to look luminous while covered in grime and wearing a yellow bonnet.
Beyond that, “Meek’s Cutoff” is a film that works masterfully with space, time and history. You could call it a thriller or horror movie in extreme slow motion, or a parable that’s more about 2010 than 1845. 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. It offered a few moments of intense, quiet contemplation, the perfect way to bid farewell to this congenial city and its amazing film festival.
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)