Each Monday, I am sharing reviews of Westerns I studied to prepare for making 12 Westerns in 12 Months during 2020. I am watching these films not from an audience perspective but as a filmmaker, as a student of the genre.
Week Five: Meek’s Cutoff and The Baron of Arizona
I have to applaud Kelly Reichardt for accomplishing something new with the Western. I’m sure many have complained about the pace of this film and probably found it boring. I didn’t at all. Slow-moving movies often entertain me more than fast ones because there’s more to look at, more to study, more to absorb.
That is the case for most of Meek’s Cutoff. I like seeing the process of the wagon party going west. It’s refreshing to see the details of the journey. The long one takes are also effective, especially the conversation with Michelle Williams and Will Patton moving in a circle. Speaking of Patton, it’s great to see him. He is underused in American film.
What I found interesting here is that the story does not deviate from the traditional, only the method of presentation does. At its core, it feels like many of the Westerns of old and doesn’t stray far from those narratives. Sure, Michelle Williams takes the lead as the strongest of the group and I suppose that’s supposed to be progressive but it’s not unlike many lead female characters from 40s and 50s Westerns.
I may be missing the point or some overall metaphor but I’m not sure the ambiguous ending fits this film. I was reminded of the John Sayles picture Limbo in which it really does fit and the outcome of the characters does not matter by the last frame. But with this one, I struggle to feel that it doesn’t or that some kind of outcome, hopeful or bleak, would have been appropriate.
Regardless, again, I salute Kelly for doing something different.
Seen on Criterion Channel.
The Baron of Arizona
This is an oddity in the genre: a political Western (one of which I’ve been interested in making for my 12 Westerns project). And a heads up if you haven’t seen it, the film takes close to half of its runtime to start feeling like a Western at all.
Though it took a while to grow on me, the film was a delightful surprise. It crept up on me, seducing me into its favors much like the Vincent Price character, one of movie’s best swindlers. The actor is perfect for the role and he cracked me up with his repeated line towards women, “but you make me afraid.”
It’s in the second part that the film really gets going in the Baron’s battle against the U.S. government and his tensions with Arizona locals. The finale is particularly impressive as mob mentality takes over. I loved how this all plays out, no spoilers. And the conclusion that comes in the final minutes is truly moving. Though I’m sure the film is highly fictitious, it has inspired me to dig into the real story of the Baron of Arizona.
On a side note, I’ve never been a big Sam Fuller fan. There are many of his works I’ve yet to see and perhaps like this one, there are some hidden treasures buried in his filmography. One thing that always catches me off guard with his films is the lack of transition. For example here, we go from a scene with Price and his wife to a cutaway of their mansion in the rain, then we are inside and the Baron has been overtaken by two posse members. What? When did that happen? He cuts into the middle of scenes often with no explanation how we got there. It also could be the studio system cutting his pictures this way but I doubt it… I’ve seen this sort of jumbled storytelling in a Sam Fuller film before.
Seen on the Criterion Channel.