Meek's Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt, 104 mins (PG)
Cold Weather, Aaron Katz, 97 mins (No Cert)

John Ford would have hated this stark Western in which a girl and a native American emerge on top

For something like a century, audiences around the world have associated certain qualities with American cinema: vividness, exuberance, optimism and, thanks to the Western, what you might call frontier spirit.

But throughout film history, repeated shifts in America's cultural confidence have led to reactions against those classic styles of Americanness – whether it's the rejection of Main Street optimism in 1940s film noir or the Vietnam-era rise of the paranoid thriller. In the 1990s, the spirit of energetic renewal asserted itself in the independent sector – even in the knowingly languid hipsterisms of Jim Jarmusch et al. But now, amid the depletion and uncertainty of the post-Bush age, US indie cinema seems so dedicated to a refusal of anything resembling patriarchal brashness, that much of it is introverted in the same way as much current American indie music – downbeat, unassertive, at worst bloodless.

Two new films react against the high tradition by taking classic American genres – the Western and the thriller respectively – as starting points. Meek's Cutoff is an anti-Western from director Kelly Reichardt, whose Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy were superb examples of suggestive minimalism – the former, in particular, a compellingly laconic example of the masculinity-in-crisis drama. Meek's Cutoff is rigorously spare, parable-like in its clarity, as it dismantles a primal myth of America's founding. Reichardt takes the great pioneer injunction, "Go West", and tells a story of inglorious directionlessness, in which it's not even certain where "west" is.

Set in 1840s Oregon, the film – scripted by Jon Raymond – follows three pioneer couples who have paid a grizzled frontiersman, Meek (Bruce Greenwood, roaring through a bird's-nest beard), to get them, their wagons and livestock to a new home across the plains. But as the film begins, one traveller (Paul Dano) is carving the word "LOST" on a branch; for their guide, this rough-hewn prairie Moses, has no idea where their Promised Land lies. Sustained by courage and religious faith, the travellers (Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Will Patton et al) forge ahead. And with no glimmer of hope in sight, we find ourselves wondering whether these taciturn folk are the tenacious true believers of Western movie tradition, or plain fools who are going to die.

Then a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) appears and is taken prisoner. Will he lead them to water, or to perdition? If the travellers could understand his language, they might know. But the drama hinges on their (and our) inability to comprehend even the signs he makes on walls. This is an existential Western in which the characters can only endure in a state of bafflement.

As the film goes on, it becomes ever more clearly a feminist drama. While Meek is a thuggish braggart, the male settlers are mild, pallid types. The women too tend to be doggedly placid, but Emily (Williams) embodies the force and seriousness of the community. We know next to nothing about her as a character, but it's the solid set of Williams's features – the implacable moon face under the flapping bonnet – that identifies her as the strongest figure here, along with Rondeaux's elusive Cayuse Indian.

In this stark, exposed universe, words signify less than gestures and faces and the landscape itself. With its vistas of arid hills and salt flats, Christopher Blauvelt's photography is painterly in an unflorid fashion. The film is shot in an almost square ratio that – where widescreen opens up a sense of possibility – de-romanticises the journey, making us aware not of where the travellers are headed but the place they're in, trapped without a compass. Soberly executed, flawlessly acted and designed with striking attention to period detail, Meek's Cutoff nevertheless moves me rather less than Reichardt's last two films. Where they were hypnotically suggestive, the message this time is stated rather flatly: white man speak without a clue. It's a fine film; John Ford would have detested it.

Undemonstrative as Reichardt's characters are, they're like hellcats besides the people in Cold Weather, another genre variant also set in Oregon. Directed by no-budget specialist Aaron Katz, who made a name with his dramas Dance Party, USA and Quiet City, Cold Weather is about Doug, a former forensics student (Cris Lankenau) working in an ice factory in Portland (which, as seen here, is nothing like the hipster paradise claimed by the likes of Todd Haynes and Gus van Sant). Doug entertains vague fantasies of being a sleuth; when his ex-girlfriend disappears, he suddenly has a case to pursue, and in one of the film's more amusing touches, buys a Holmes-style pipe in the belief it will help him think more clearly (it doesn't).

Unexpectedly, he and a co-worker (Raúl Castillo) succeed in solving the case. But the intrigue itself – involving empty hotel rooms, baseball-related codes and a heavy in a cowboy hat – seems paper-thin, and devised purely to get these sympathetic but hardly compelling people through the dullness of their days. Cold Weather is a likeable, and evidently personal, genre variant, but even compared to the introverted severities of Meek's Cutoff, it seems non-committal. But perhaps that's why golden-age Hollywood made its great thrillers and Westerns in California, not Oregon.

Next Week:

Jonathan Romney explores the wilderness again, with Russian drama How I Ended This Summer

Film Choice

Janus Metz's war documentary Armadillo shocked audiences in its native Denmark – soberingly brutal, it casts a troubling light on the rules of engagement in Afghanistan. Back in critical favour, writer Terence Rattigan is the subject of a retrospective at London's BFI Southbank, till the end of April: films include Brighton Rock and The VIPs.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution