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