The Western has had a resurgence of late. With the success of 3:10 To Yuma, True Grit and forthcoming Tarantino romp, Django Unchained; the genre is once again becoming a focal point for film makers.
Kelly Reichardt directs Meek’s Cutoff, a tale of settlers that become lost in the harsh plains of Oregon, whilst under the guiding eye of Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). The desperate travellers take a native Indian (Rod Rondeaux) captive in the hope he will lead them to water and, ultimately, survival. However, the group become torn when opinion is divided over whether he intends to lead them to a water supply or into a carefully orchestrated trap.
Meek’s Cutoff opens with a collection of beautiful, scenic shots that immediately sets a mood of tranquillity. Being at one with nature portrays a peaceful and serene way of life. In fact, for the first 6 minutes the film eludes dialogue, as Reichardt captures the simplicity of life for these pioneers. What we witness is her exquisite composition and ability to frame such rich imagery for the purposes of storytelling. The frequent use of long, static, slow pan and tracking shot as well as general stillness, shows a clear intention for the film’s pacing, which is likely to put some mainstream viewers off. This is unfortunate because Meek’s Cutoff is a very pleasant experience. It follows the gruelling and emotional journey of the group’s resettlement, including Emily (Michelle Williams), Thomas (Paul Dano) and Soloman (Will Patton). Arguably the most standout of the cast is Meek himself, as Greenwood resembles various qualities to Jeff Bridge’s Rooster Cogburn in recent remake, True Grit. Collectively, performances are subtle, with nuances embedded within each scene; the film captures a grace and humility, which results in an engaging tale.
As well as its low key opening, the consistent, slow paced tone is delicately handled, with a story that is aesthetically authentic; it doesn’t thrill, but intrigues throughout. Sparse dialogue is coupled with an intense visual style that more-so documents the stunning landscape of the American Plains, as well as the exploration of the personal plight of the characters. Comparisons in style and tone can be drawn with Paul Thomas Anderson’s well crafted, There Will Be Blood, as it teases to reach a more intense level, yet only does so on occasion.
Aside from the group’s need for sustenance, the subtle performances reveal a lot, as a particular glance or silent moment can reveal far more about its protagonists than any lengthy dialogue could. It is this no-nonsense simplicity that gives Meek’s Cutoff charm and likability, even though not a lot happens plot-wise.
Because of the low octane nature of the narrative, when something relevant to the plot does occur, it has far more impact due to the contrasting manner to how the film is set up. Key scenes won’t blow your mind, but the language of subtlety, especially in its conclusion, is one to be appreciated. Granted, for many the ending will evoke a question of ‘is that it?’, but those who don’t grasp Reichardt’s intentions, will feel a little disengaged with the outcome. The final shot, whilst powerful and fitting in its conclusion, can disappoint preconceived expectations in the traditional sense of a ‘ film climax’. There is no shock or twist, but instead a gentle exit, much the same way as the film is introduced. The notion of humanity is a consistent theme throughout and is just as poignant in the final scene.
The DVD offers very little in terms of extras, which includes a 10 minute ‘making of’ feature that is in keeping with the style of the film – there’s no interview or voice over, merely a documented onset recording. It’s interesting, but there could have been a bit more for your money. There’s also a trailer and collection of Reichardt’s other films, but little else.
One thing worth noting is the sound levels are rather low, so requires the volume to be cranked up if you want to hear certain whispers or dialogue clearly. It’s a small niggle, especially when the visual quality is so breathtaking and the emotional attachment to some of the characters, such as Emily, becomes unavoidable.
Meek’s Cutoff is a visual treat and benefits from Reichardt’s directing capabilities. The cinematography is sublime. There’s a pureness as we travel alongside a likable, and more importantly watchable, group of settlers whose hope is divided and somewhat diminished. Accomplished performances make this a gripping, as well as daring, separation from Hollywood. Assured in its pacing, the richness and subtlety of the characters will reward audiences with such patience.