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Toronto 2010: Werner Herzog in 3D

Posted by Wesley Morris  September 14, 2010 08:36 PM

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Meek's Cutoff.jpgAfter five days of wandering downtown from theater to theater, we're still clamoring for something that approaches brilliance. That's in lieu of even discovering a movie that's flat-out brilliant. This morning we came close. Kelly Reichardt's "Meek's Cutoff" was shown, and it meets a standard of both general excellence and personal idiosyncrasy that is increasingly rare in serious American moviemaking. In other words, Reichardt isn't in pursuit of an Oscar. 

Her movie is a painstaking telling of the journey several families took across the parched prairies of the West in 1846. Their guide was Stephen Meek, a blustery fur trapper, and it's unclear whether they should have left the Oregon Trail to reach their desired destination in the Willamette Valley faster since all the detour -- the Meek Cutoff -- wins them, in Reichardt's film, is frustration. The actual trip involved hundreds of people. This version is more intimate -- three families. 

Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, and Zoe Kazan play the women. Will Patton and Paul Dano play two of the men, and beneath a bale of cottony gray hair is Bruce Greenwood as Meek. The little bit of research I've done failed to turn up confirmation that Meek actually sounded like Danny Glover, but Greenwood makes it work for him.
Reichardt's filmmaking fascinates as much for what it doesn't do as for what it does. Her previous movies -- including "Old Joy" and "Wendy and Lucy," which starred Williams -- were also set in Oregon, and she has proven to be a director who doesn't need big moments. She trusts her strengths as a storyteller -- Jonathan Raymond, her regular collaborator, wrote the screenplay. The muted drama in her movies isn't a matter of stubbornness or restraint. It's organic. Here, the quiet is exactly as it should be for a story about an arduous trip whose outcome is uncertain. Dialogue comes at a premium. So when characters speak to each other, the exchanges have consequence.

Meek's Cutoff2.jpg
The action involves transporting a handful of people, three prairie schooners, and several cattle across the plain. Meek scares them with tales of American Indians, who, he says, would have no problem killing women. At some point, a Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) somewhat joins the caravan, rivaling Meek's sense of direction and turning him grumpy. The central question is whether Meek has erred and what will it eventually cost the people following him. Williams's character becomes openly skeptical. The presence of the Cayuse raises an eternally gendered crisis: Do we ask for directions or not? 

I love Reichardt's ideas. 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. 

Cave of Forgotten Dreams.jpg
"Meek's Cutoff" is a movie you wish Robert Redford still had the temperament to make. It has thoughts and a sense of history, but Reichardt leaves a lot of the concluding to us. Werner Herzog, in his way, does the same. Tuesday's other delight -- there were a couple of embarrassments, but I'm bringing only good news today -- was Herzog's latest nature documentary, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," which was screened this afternoon in 3D. Essentially, it's 90 minutes spent in and around a French cave where 35,000-year-old paintings were discovered in 1994. 

Access to the cave is hard to come by and strictly limited, but Herzog and a tiny crew make it inside. The camera stares at the animals depicted one the cave walls, as Herzog offers grand poetic pronouncements about the significance of it all. His lyrical yet blunt judgments are entertainments in themselves. The 3D is a dubious conceit in one sense. It rarely seems essential to watching, for example, a man sniff around a forest for possible cave openings. But there is something valuably ironic about all this modern technology feasted upon an ancient little sculpture made from an ivory tusk. I'm still processing the movie's fuzzily argued epilogue, which visits a biosphere full of albino crocodiles that could have escaped from the Louisiana of Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant" movie. But, in all, it was a day that forced us to think, once again, about what a tiny blip we are in the scheme of things. Which is precisely why I plan to purge those thoughts by screaming "I Will Survive" this evening at a karaoke party hosted by the South by Southwest festival. 

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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