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OscarWatch: Michelle Williams in Meek’s Cutoff

By the time 2010 comes to an ambling close, Michelle Williams will have two very good performances under her belt. Blue Valentine, and Meek’s Cutoff.

Obsessed with Film, underwhelmed by the film but impressed by Williams writes:

Michelle Williams, who is working with the director for a second time, is absolutely, show-stealingly brilliant in her role as one of the travelers. Her face able to register a look of resentment and contempt the likes of which I have never seen. It also features Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, who is brilliant as the uber-religious one and responsible for the films few comic moments, and Zoe Kazan, whose constant fearful bleating recalls a hyper-ventilating Shelly Duvall in The Shining. All these actors perform well on limited material. Only the titular Meek is played over the top, with Bruce Greenwood sometimes straying into the voice of an old prospector from a bad western. Everybody else downplays it and it works great.

Variety’s Justin Chang:

Williams, so heartbreaking in “Wendy and Lucy,” anchors the ensemble with a performance of fierce grit and unflinching moral strength, staring down Meek and firing a rifle with the same bone-deep conviction. Greenwood’s face is almost entirely hidden by a dark beard, but his gravelly voice is instantly recognizable, lending the cocksure Meek an undertow of menace. Fellow travelers Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson have a more difficult time blending in with the milieu initially, while Rondeaux renders the Cayuse captive compellingly unreadable.

Such filmmaking’s near-spiritual devotion to landscape can occasionally swallow human players, but while big names (for this director, at least) like Paul Dano and Shirley Henderson feel a tad lost in the mix, Reichardt once more brings out the very best in Williams. As the story’s principal conduit of reason and morality, Emily could be a dour presence, but the actress is instead softly watchful and drily, unexpectedly, funny: “I want him to owe me something,” she crisply explains when granting the Cayuse intruder an unsolicited favor.

In Williams, Reichardt has found an actor capable of matching her contained integrity and opening it out to a broader audience; long may this partnership continue. Long, too, may Reichardt continue to inquiringly scope out the backyard of American indie film, applying her immaculate technical precision and near-accidentally feminist gaze to more distant milieux. Adventurous, ambiguous and truthful, “Meek’s Cutoff” may be a marvel in itself, but it only sets up greater expectations for the future.