Culture, Film

Review: Meek’s Cutoff


Meek's Cutoff movie posterOpening with a hand-written card ‘Oregon Territory, 1845’ and followed by a boy grafittiing a fallen tree trunk with the single word ‘lost,’ we quickly see why. Three wagons split from a Westward train travel the wilderness led by ‘guide’ Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), alleged tracker, Indian fighter and consumate *BS* artist.

This ‘pre-Western’ directed by Kelly Reichardt is a tale of macro landscapes and micro performances. This is the frontier before Sam Pekinpah, Sergio Leone and John Ford, an elegy not to the passing of the Old West, but the beginning of the New West. There are no gun slingers or railroads and only one Indian. The perils are the divisions between the three families and their guide, and the common dangers of a harsh, uncharted and unforgiving landscape.

Risking ridicule, I’m going to nail this as the women’s Western, as Reichardt makes over the Western wagon train as a portentous, yet largely mundane and domestic travelogue, in which everything except the landscape is understated.

Running to an hour and three quarters, Reichardt labours over Jon Raymonds script that anyone else would have used up in twenty minutes. This is mostly how it runs;

Big landscape. Big landscape. Big landscape.
Stop. Bible studies.
Big landscape. Big landscape. Big landscape.
Stop. Put up tents.
Women knitting.
Big landscape. Big landscape. Big landscape.
Take down tents.
Women washing up.
Big landscape. Big landscape. Big landscape.
Mumble about being lost. Threaten to fire the guide.
Big landscape. Big landscape. Big landscape.
More mumbling about being lost.
Big landscape. Big landscape. Big landscape.
Lone Indian on the horizon.
Big landscape. Big landscape.
Capture Indian.
Big landscape. Big landscape.
More mumbling about being lost. Threaten to fire the guide…

You’ll come away thinking Bibles, blankets, bonnets and a bright yellow songbird in a cage. Most of the time, this is like one of those living history, frontier recreation documentaries, with occasional outbreaks of acting by familiar faces – Will Patton, Michelle Williams (the main draw) and Britain’s own squeaky Shirley Henderson. Greenwood is ebullient as Meek.

As a tribute to extreme bravery – or extreme foolhardiness – to optimism, fatalism, the frontier spirit; Meek’s Cutoff cannot be faulted. As a Heart of Darkness study of motivations, morality and ethical values under threat in extremis, it is a masterfully underplayed portrait of Protestant restraint. As an arthouse triumph, Reichardt, director of photography Christopher Blauvelt and composer Jeff Grace deliver a classic. As a Western, you may want to go elsewhere. Just as things get interesting, Meek’s Cutoff abruptly, well – cuts off. RC

Meek’s Cutoff 2011
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writer: Jon Raymond
Genre: Drama, Western
Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes.
Cast: Michelle Williams (Emily Tetherow), Bruce Greenwood (Stephen Meek), Will Patton (Solomon Tetherow), Zoe Kazan (Millie Gately), Paul Dano (Thomas Gately), Shirley Henderson (Glory White), Neal Huff (William White), Tommy Nelson (Jimmy White) and Rod Rondeaux (the Indian).

About Robin Catling

Writer; performer; project manager; sports coach; all-round eccentric.

Discussion

3 thoughts on “Review: Meek’s Cutoff

  1. Thanks for that awesome posting. :-)

    Posted by V Qeproun | June 26, 2012, 1:18 pm
  2. I’m sure it’s very worthy. A lot of really dull things are.

    Posted by VeaSea | July 1, 2012, 11:59 am

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