Wednesday evening’s Mavericks session at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival featured Kelly Reichardt, the American director of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. It was probably the most captivating and intimate session of its kind I’ve ever seen at TIFF. Reichardt was interviewed by Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum, who would not have been my first choice for the role but in fact did a remarkable job, alternately supporting and gently provoking her subject. Reichardt was warm, good humoured, yet utterly frank about her particular anxieties as a filmmaker who, in the ten years between her first and second features, gradually came to realize the myriad filmmaking methods for which she was not suited and essentially refused to work. Joking somewhat painfully about the disappointingly smallish crowd that turned out for the on-stage Q&A—among them actors Shirley Henderson and Neal Huff, and composer Jeff Grace—Reichardt matter-of-factly tried to explain how she was acutely aware that her opportunities to make the sort of films she wants to make—the sort that are handmade, that use skeletal crews, that offer the talent no pampering whatsoever, that are shot on film despite tiny budgets, that grant the director genuine and complete independence, that reject diversion in favour of quietude, narrative dynamics in favour of close observation and emotional nuance—could evaporate at any moment. Reichardt is beloved and respected, especially amongst local cinephiles, and everyone there seemed to want to reassure her of this, yet honestly, I think her anxieties are perfectly valid. What makes Reichardt’s work so valuable and enduring is also what can make it seem like some sort of endangered species.
Meek’s Cut-off, Reichardt’s fourth feature, roughly approximates a western, though it forsakes widescreen vistas for square images of landscapes dissolving into other, similar landscapes. It offers a paucity of action, and is firmly committed to conveying the arduousness of settling in unmapped territory. It is distinctly immersive and may very well be the best American film of the year. Based on true events and set in 1845, it chronicles a trio of families traversing Oregon with the increasingly dubious leadership of big-talking, biker-bearded Bruce Greenwood’s Stephen Meek. Terrain proves troublesome and water progressively scarce. Henderson’s character is pregnant. A strangely moving scene finds her chasing a kerchief across parched gray earth in the mischievous wind. Washing up, repairing wheels, building a fire: drawing inspiration for Robert Flaherty’s films, Reichardt allows the group’s chores to play out in real time, and in doing so slowly changes our sense of time. From a distance we watch Michele Williams fire and then reload a musket in a state of panic and it is an unnervingly long process. At one point the men capture an Indian. Against Meek’s wishes they let him live so as to lead them to water. There are no subtitles and we have no special access to his thoughts or intentions. He isn’t ennobled or humanized any more than anyone else. He’s a man, which is enough for Williams’ character to fear him, but also to treat him with respect. She’s pragmatic first and sympathetic second. The film’s ending is sublimely well judged, resolving almost nothing yet ushering us right to the moment where our desperate convey of characters must surrender any notion of being able to control their destinies. Beautiful. But political? It’s that too, but I’d rather you discover those layers on your own.