Friday, 10 June 2011



They say it isn't the destination but the journey getting there that matters. I say phewy to that, especially when it comes to films and to one I had been so looking forward to.

Meek's Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt's minimalist western about a wagon train traversing across Oregon in 1845, features a hell of a lot of the journey in its 104 minutes, but fails to arrive at a satisfactory destination, literally or metaphorically.

Three couples - Solomon and Emily (Will Paton and Michelle Williams), Thomas and Millie (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan), William and Glory (Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson) and their young son, Jimmy (Tommy Nelson) - have hired Stephen Meek (an unrecognisable Bruce Greenwood) to guide them West and safely across the territories. Meek, they soon discover, is an "expert" at everything but a master at evading a direct answer to any question asked, particularly where they are; the wagon train has failed to reach its destination in the promised two weeks (it's been five when we meet them).

But onward they trek, with dialogue as sparse as the landscape they traverse. (When I said minimalist, I meant it.) I'm not sure what I found more annoying, that bloody wagon axle which squeaked continually throughout the movie, or the rumbling emanating from the stomach of the woman seated behind me? Perhaps in sympathy with our intrepid travellers whose food and water supplies dwindle as they continue, cluelessly, further west.

Their fortunes don't improve any when they capture a native Indian (Rod Rondeaux), believing he'll lead them to water. Emily tries, in a pioneering woman kind of way, to connect with him but Meek and some of the others suspect he's secretly sending messages to his people and that they'll soon meet their end at the end of an arrow.

All of the performances in Meek's Cutoff are solid and can't be faulted, and one can commend Reichardt for her attention to period detail. Not just the bonnets but the drudgery and hardship of those pioneers who did just what our protagonists did, though rather more successfully otherwise the United States wouldn't have become the (supposed) leaders of the free world.

I also caught Douglas Sirk's 1954 classic MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION today and have to say time has not been kind to this melodrama, although Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson (who would re-team the following year in Sirk's ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, also showing as part of the Festival) are perfectly fine as the newly widowed Mrs Phillips and the playboy Bob Merrick, inadvertently responsible for her widow status who then makes her happiness his obsession.

What was no doubt grade-A entertainment in the 1950s is somewhat laughable today. And laugh my fellow audience did, but not maliciously; I doubt anyone forked over money to come and deride the film. I'm glad I got to see it, and I'm also glad I saw it in the Art Gallery of New South Wales; it's been far too long since I've been there. Film history, art and a bit of culture all in one hit: who could ask for more on a Saturday morning?

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