Meek's Cutoff

Movies, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
Meek's Cutoff
The fact that ‘Meek’s Cutoff’, the new film by lauded American indie darling Kelly Reichardt, could loosely be called a ‘western’, suggests that the grassroots critical success of her previous two films – ‘Old Joy’ (2006) and ‘Wendy and Lucy’ (2008) – has allowed her to broaden her scope. Nevertheless, this is just as rich, nuanced, mysterious and low key as anything she’s made. Again she requires audiences to look beyond the images being shown and the words being spoken to discover the film’s concealed political suggestions and understated emotions. And yet, at times, ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ feels like Reichardt may have chosen to juggle too many balls, as she sometimes neglects to include the pithy inflections that give the characters in her earlier films such history, vulnerability and humanity.

It’s 1845, and the film traces three families who are steering ox wagons across the arid Oregon planes. They are in search of new long-term dwellings, but in the short term, just some water, vegetation or signs of life would be enough. We join them at a point when they’ve chosen (perhaps wrongly) to heed the advice of Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a grizzled, worldly good-ol’-boy who’s taken them on a dangerous short cut to their promised land. The interminable rhythmic creak of the wagon wheel which – alongside an ambient drone – makes up much of the film’s soundtrack only accentuates the struggle at hand. It is also indicative of the fact that some may see the film as slow, uneventful and repetitive, while others will see it as meticulous, sensitive and possessing a consoling certainty of its purpose.

Paul Dano, Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan and Will Patton make up the bulk of this group of unhappy pilgrims whose dire fortunes hit a crossroads when they capture a Native American who some suspect will cut off their skins in the night, and others think will be of use to their onward journey. But their captive remains inscrutable, giving no sign that he comprehends their aspirations or whether he is supportive of them or not.

Jon Raymond’s rambling, naturalistic script circumvents conventional scenarios as characters rarely enter into studied discourse about their plans, blurt out themes or exchange romantic platitudes for the sake of the camera. The ‘drama’ (if that isn’t too strong a term) springs from the most mundane of human activities, such as the way the women comport themselves as they walk, or the burst of energy that erupts when they think they’ve found water (though it ends up being undrinkable).

On one viewing, it’s tough to pinpoint the film’s specific intentions. It could be read as a number of things. Is it a feminist slant on the western? A simple chronicle of the suffering of immigrants in the US? A film that lambasts our desire for material goods? Or even a sparse study of the sublime indifference of nature towards our desire for self-preservation? It’s a film open to interpretation, but the broad themes of trust and communication stand out. Can we really accept information filtered through other minds? Does our cultural upbringing affect the way we perceive simple facts? Is there such a thing as pure truth? One might even want to see the film as a political allegory, which – to quote Bruce Springsteen – states that, ‘Blind faith in your leaders, or in anything, will get you killed.’

The technical aspects of the film are all up to Reichardt’s distinctive and atmospheric standards. Vast panoramas are framed – somewhat bizarrely – in Academy ratio (a square, rather than the western widescreen staple) which goes some way to affirm that this is not your average genre picture. It also has a rough, sand-blasted beauty to it, especially the shots of the three women in their pretty, brightly coloured gowns and bonnets against the infinitely-rolling landscape. It’s difficult to judge the performances in the film, as there simply aren’t any. Reichardt includes little in the way of exposition – though Meek’s tall tales of his past adventures make him the most obvious ‘character’ – and the relationships between families, husbands and wives, and even parents and children are refined to their purest nub. The Native American talks and gestures, but communication is never achieved. In that sense, he remains an enigma to the members of the wagon train, just as the film’s American speaking characters remain something of an enigma to us.

By: David Jenkins


Release details

Rated: PG
Release date: Friday April 8 2011
Duration: 104 mins

Cast and crew

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Michelle Williams
Bruce Greenwood
Will Patton
Zoe Kazan
Paul Dano
Shirley Henderson
1 person listening