I really want to like Kelly Reichardt, I really do. I just recently caught up with her third feature, the minimalist Western, Meek's Cutoff, a film that received a significant amount of critical praise upon release, and one that I had been very excited about. Unfortunately, as the feature folded into credits I was left with disappointment. I was nothing but deflated. There were elements within the preceding ninety minutes that tantalized me, teasing my brain with excitement. But to my chagrin, nary a thread I followed, whether stylistically or dramatically, paid off.
Don't get me wrong, Ms. Reichardt has talent. She is most definitely an artist with a distinctive style, stark that it may be. I believe I could spot her work in a line-up. She is most certainly not a hack. Unfortunately her cinematic potential has not yet been sustained to the point of creating a significant and wholly satisfying work. I see it throughout her three features in fleeting fits and starts and this excitement compels me to continue seeking out her efforts, despite my prior frustrations.
I actually quite like Old Joy, which tells a quiet, simple story of friends who grew apart long ago, tentatively dancing around one another again before going their separate ways. The film is told in a low-key manner that pulls you into its world, allowing you to sit side by side with her characters and their awkward reunion. It is easily Ms. Reichardt's most satisfying work. Wendy and Lucy had similar attributes and I found the filmmaking to be accomplished but the movie's failing came with the story itself. We are shown a deep and loving bond between the two titular characters and the emotional devastation that is wrought when they are separated. The plight of the movie is the quest for reunion. It is the only thing that matters. That is until they do reunite and decide its just best to leave one another again. The plot deals with themes explored in Old Joy except that Wendy and Lucy do need one another and are not complete as individuals. Basically dogs are more important than friends. You don't leave them with strangers to go to Alaska indefinitely. It's just stupid.
From Meek's meager beginnings (more on that in a moment), I was more entranced with the film's style than the substance. She's shooting in 1:33, I thought. That's awesome! But why? And why am I more concerned with her sense of framing than her characters? Because in this film her characters are all but non-existent. I actually think that is a major step backward from both Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. In both previous films, we got a definite grasp of who these people (and dogs) are and what their motivations were. We get very little to latch onto in Meek's Cutoff, save Michelle Williams's pioneer and her burgeoning feminism. One character is pregnant but I didn't notice until the last couple of minutes of the movie. Was it a big reveal, supposed to heighten the drama of the denouement? Nope, she just wasn't framed from the waist down earlier. Knowing this earlier in the film would have differentiated her from her bonneted brethren but instead she's just there, somewhere. The only other character we get a bead on is Meek himself, played far too broadly by Bruce Greenwood, who is nothing more than an idiot and a nuisance to the proceedings. His character goes through no emotional arc and is the same oaf at the end of the tale as he is at the onset. He learns nothing. One aspect the film wants us to question is whether he is evil or just misguided, but we never care because as my astute girlfriend put it, this guy would never survive in the West. He would be swallowed whole.
At first I thought the crucial element missing from Reichardt's work was humor, but I realized that there are dozens of filmmakers I revere who betray not an ounce of humor, Terrence Malick for one. No, we don't need humor but we do need joy. And this is what Reichardt patently lacks, despite including the word in the title of her first film. Just the hint of happiness or transcendence would give us all something to cling to when Michelle Williams's pretty face is offscreen. Instead we see static. Well-composed, truly independent static, but static nonetheless.