Thursday 21 April 2011


(Kelly Reichert, 2010)

Deliberate and confident in its pacing, Reichert's film is a Western like they used to make them in the 1970s; not just revisionist but challenging the genre's most basic assumptions and markers. Following three families who have broken off from a Wagon Train in the Great Plains of Oregon, led by a grizzled, almost self-consciously mythic Scout named Steven Meek, it's rhythms are suggestive more of art cinema than the Western. Slow pans and extremely gradual dissolves establish the visual scheme of the film, and Reichert repeatedly captures figures isolated against vast landscapes and immense skies as they plod relentlessly across the country.
The characters are indicated through observation, their various dynamics sketched beautifully in the films first act as their situation worsens and they are stretched and tested as people. They are lost and beginning to doubt their guides ability to lead them competently, and tensions grow between the couples, especially when they capture a lone Indian and Meek wants to kill him.
The Indian is an unknowable, implacable presence in their midst and a big element of the mysterious quality that makes the film such a fascinating and occasionally demanding watch. The excellent cast - in which Michelle Williams and Bruce Greenwood are the standouts - combat that difficulty, as does Reichert's sure hand with her regular collaborator Jonathan Raymond's excellent script, always ensuring that the problem at the heart of the plot is foregrounded and expressed through the interplay of her vividly drawn characters.
The feminist angle is obvious but never overstated. This is a film that wants to show what it was like to be a woman on the frontier; not a whore or a female gunslinger, but a married woman in search of a future with her husband and family. The part Williams' character plays in the story is a subtle criticism of how the genre usually ignores the female perspective entirely, and yet the film integrates that into its ensemble portrayal of these pioneers and a sustained study in landscape cinematography.

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