Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff is my biggest cinematic surprise of the year so far. Poetic, beautiful and wonderfully understated, this film polarises the conventional Western.
Meek’s Cutoff is a Revisionist Western, meaning it incorporates nontraditional genre elements into its plot. The premise is three families setting off into dangerous Native-American territory looking for prosperity, guided by Stephen Meek, an unshaven and disheveled man who claims to “know these parts”. While on the surface the story-line seems to be standard dust-bowl fare, what quickly becomes apparent is that the emphasis here is not on telling a tale; the story is the journey, rather than the destination. The events crawl along at a pace that perfectly reflects the monotony of their arduous endeavor, and this seemingly perpetual movement, coupled with the numerous, surprisingly beautiful static shots of the terrain, makes the experience immersive. Not far along the line the troop encounter a Native American while desperately searching for water to refill their dwindling supply. It is here that the dynamic is formed, with the captive taking his captors on an endless journey of uncertainty. Will he lead them to salvation? Or will he lead them to a pack of blood-thirsty savages?
Director Kelly Reichardt is by no means a big name in the film industry, but she has assembled a top notch cast for this latest venture. Previous collaborator Michelle Williams returns as the strong-willed Emily Tetherow, putting in another recognition-deserving performance to add to her Oscar-nominated turn in Blue Valentine. Bruce Greenwood follows up his part in the excellent Barney’s Version, portraying the gruff and enigmatic Stephen Meek. It is hardly a typical Greenwood role, but he puts on his best Rooster Cogburn impression (Jeff Bridges rather than John Wayne) and pulls off the part with surprising ease. Throw into the pot the brilliantly excruciating character of Zoe Kazan, along with Paul Dano, who basically plays Eli Sunday again (There Will be Blood), and it adds up to a terrific cast. Rod Rondeaux also deserves special mention for his stoic turn as the non-English speaking Native American (or Red Skin, as the characters prefer); considering he has no translated lines of dialogue, his acting is remarkably powerful.
The ending of the film will undoubtedly cause some differences of opinion. Of course I won’t spoil it for you, but be warned that it’s not the most conclusive of conclusions. However, become engrossed in the film at any point up to the denouement, and it might just strike a chord.
Meek’s Cutoff won’t be for everyone, but film lovers could well find this the surprise package of the year. The only obvious criticism is that one of the film’s major set-plays is underwhelming. Apart from that, it verges on flawless; creating so much while utilising so little.