‘Jane Eyre’ & ‘Meek's Cutoff’

A friend coined a phrase to describe anything that is a cut above mediocrity but falls well short of excellence: “very OK.” And that’s what I would call the latest version of Jane Eyre.

Did we need another version? The stormy black-and-white chiaroscuro of the 1943 Joan Fontaine–Orson Welles semiclassic etched the horror-movie aspects of the story into our memories, while the color photography of all the BBC and Hollywood successors rendered the most melodramatic sequences bland. All credit then to director Cary Fukunaga for making clear what he found exciting in the 1847 novel. I didn’t like his 2009 debut Sin Nombre, a tale of young lovers on the run from gang warfare, but the concept of Jane Eyre as a perpetual fugitive from societal hypocrisies and an impossible lover seems to have touched a chord in him.

Indeed, the very first look we get of our heroine is when she’s in flight from the tormented squire Rochester after having discovered the terrible conjugal secret in the attic. It’s a passage that occurs three-quarters of the way through the book but here, in Moira Buffini’s intelligent screenplay, serves as a springboard to flashbacks to Jane’s childhood, youth, and developing romance with the Byron-ic brute. Fukunaga stages the opening splendidly by conveying Jane’s panic in close-up with a jogging, hand-held camera, then cutting back to steady long shots that reveal the lonely expanse of wild moorland into which she has wandered. There’s an emotional and physical excitement here that hooks us and raises our hopes that the director will put a bloom on a too-oft-told tale.

And Fukunaga does for a while, but then he doesn’t. The film keeps striking off sparks, but, unlike Rochester’s ancestral mansion, it never catches fire. Throughout, there are good bits that convey the perfervid subjectivity of the novel: a bully smacks the child Jane with a heavy book, and we hear the ringing in her head; at the orphanage Jane sleeps beside her mortally ill best friend and wakes to stare into the open eyes of a corpse; at a country -soiree Rochester forces her to attend, the camera stays behind Jane, stiff and resentful in her chair and frozen out of the conversation while the guests’ brittle pleasantries seem to be echoing within some paranoid chamber of her skull. (I’ve always wondered whether Jane was all that admirable or really an example of ressentiment.)

But there’s also a recurring blandness in Fukunaga’s staging that flattens the story. The heroine’s growing awareness of the hidden wife should be conveyed with the utmost suspense, but the director relies too much on mere dimness and the usual creaking noises. I was no admirer of director Ken Russell, but I wish some of the craziness of his The Devils and Gothic had worked its way into this picture. Russell would not have soft-pedaled the savage degradation of the madwoman in the attic. Charlotte Brontë certainly shows sympathy for her, but it’s something like the emotion Mary Shelley elicits for the Frankenstein monster, a mingling of revulsion and pity. While the book’s Mrs. R. possesses ferocious strength and sinks her teeth into her husband’s cheek, the movie’s Bertha seems only confused and unkempt, and her attempt to merely scratch her husband is easily deflected.

The most problematic element in this movie is Mia Wasikowska’s Jane. Outwardly, the heroine may be small and plain, but inside she’s a tempest. Wasikowska so overdoes the mousiness that the occasional fiery outburst (which she performs movingly) seems to come out of nowhere. In the book Jane’s ongoing internal monologue keeps us in touch with her passions so her later flare-ups are believable, but on screen it takes a lot of latent fury to keep a suppressed character compelling. At this early stage of her career, Wasikowska can’t manage it.

But Michael Fassbender’s Rochester is the best, most skillfully shaped version of the character I’ve ever seen: sardonicism rooted in self-hatred gives way to guarded neediness, climaxes in rage at society and fate, and ends in a sort of purified desolation.

This Jane Eyre is well paced, lucid, and never musty or precooked. Still, without intense cinematic poetry or the sort of cheap thrills I would settle for in lieu of poetry, this movie is…very OK.

Kelly Reichardt is the sort of filmmaker who lures critics into writing things like, “She’s not interested in the destination but in the journey,” thus making the critic sound even more precious than Kelly Reichardt. Actually, she does follow her characters to their destinations, but the arrivals are psychological, not geographic. Her first film, Old Joy, had its hero say a late goodbye to adolescence after interminable male bonding with his best friend during a camping trip. I found myself wondering whether a stint as public-relations director for Muammar Qaddafi might be preferable to five minutes in the woods with these two slacker-zombies. But her next film, Wendy and Lucy, was mesmerizing: a young woman, isolated and homeless because of her own bad decisions, can’t save herself, yet rises to an act of compassion by finding a place in the world for her dog.

For some, Meek’s Cutoff will be infuriating because it violates every expectation we have of its genre—the Western pioneer saga. So do not count on seeing another Drums along the Mohawk if you go to this movie. Yes, the period and place—the 1845 Oregon Trail—are diligently evoked; yes, the Conestoga wagons seem authentic; yes, the costumes look like real clothes, the dialogue by Jonathan Raymond sounds authentically curt and hard-bitten, and the amazing photography by Chris Blauvelt not only captures the intensity of light on sunbaked earth and the dust that billows up with each turn of the wagon wheels, but seems to bake that heat right through your pores and into your bones. Bring a canteen to the theater.

For all the rewards of verisimilitude, audiences want wayfarers to get to the promised land, and Kelly Reichhardt isn’t the woman to get them there. However, if you’re patient and attentive, you just might conclude that Meek’s Cutoff does arrive at its true dramatic destination—but, this being a Reichardt film, that destination isn’t on any map.

Meek, an aging scout (played to the hilt by the admirable Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood) has led a few settlers into the Oregon Territory. He’s engaging when spinning tall tales to the kids but unable to bring the trek to a satisfactory terminus. Is he in cahoots with European land grabbers who want American settlers misdirected? The pioneers capture a Nez Perce Indian who seems willing to guide them to safety, but, given the abuse he’s suffered at Meek’s hands, might he not lead them to destruction instead? The scout, seeing his authority undermined by the trust placed in the native, wants to kill him. The troupe leader’s wife, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams, quietly occupying the center of the movie), intervenes to have the prisoner spared, and there’s something more than simple humaneness at play here.

Waxing surprisingly philosophical, Meek has said that women operate on the principle of chaos while men embody the forces of destruction. This turns out to be true, but not in the way the scout intended. Emily, though the least chaotic of personalities, is alert to the way chance can bring on chaos but also lead us out of it. She wants to obey destiny by following the Indian. Meek, Mr. Destruction Incarnate, would at least like to get in some satisfying Injun-killing before dying of thirst. Whether or not the native leads the pioneers to salvation, the proper climax of the movie comes when the troupe must choose between Meek’s counsel and Emily’s. The problem for some viewers will be that “whether or not.” Is a choice rather than an arrival a satisfying conclusion to a pioneer trek movie? For me it was.

No one stages action and inaction like Reichardt. Her camera stares at people, animals, and landscapes with equanimity. She imbues the visuals with a subtle, interesting feminism, as when the males draw apart to debate their course, and the camera keeps them always at a distance, while Emily, observing the council, is photographed in extreme close-up. This makes the male huddle look pompously secretive, and we become Emily’s partners in skepticism. Reichardt can do conventional action, too, but in an unconventional way. The showdown, with Meek training his pistol on the native while Emily aims a rifle at the scout, is unnerving precisely because the director doesn’t overwork the scene with high-voltage editing but keeps the camera steady, impassively waiting for violence to explode.

Sometimes Reichardt goes too far. For instance, the night scenes within the wagons are so dim that I felt I was listening to a radio play. Granted, this made me pay extra close attention to the dialogue, but couldn’t the darkness have been employed more variously?

While watching Old Joy I wanted to strangle Kelly Reichardt. After viewing Wendy and Lucy, I felt like kissing the hem of her dress (or the cuff of her jeans) and proclaiming her the best young talent in American independent filmmaking. A couple of times during Meek’s Cutoff I wanted to scream and uproot the seat in front of me. But when it ended, I felt I had seen something I would never forget by a great American original.


Related: Richard Alleva's reviews of Sin Nombre and Wendy and Lucy

Published in the 2011-06-03 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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