Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writer: Jonathan Raymond
Stars: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano
Release Date: September 5, 2010 (Venice Film Festival) / April 8, 2011 (United States)
Meek's Cutoff is a beautifully bleak portrait of settlers moseying along the Oregon Trail. The naturalistic filmmaking makes this one of the truest Westerns in film history, one that keeps you wondering the outcome as it moves along at an ox's pace.
Kelly Reichardt continues to blaze a trail as one of the pioneers of the neo-neo realism movement (A.O. Scott of the NY Times explores that term here). It is fitting that this anti-Western is about pioneers, lost in an unforgiving high desert. The small party (consisting of just three covered wagons) is led by Stephen Meek, a frontier man if you ever did see one. Words ain't uttered for a while as you begin the film, but as one character carves "LOST" into the gray stone bark of a fallen tree, it speaks loud and clear.
The film's opening visuals are among the most striking, or maybe I just grew accustomed to the way Chris Blauvelt patiently and perfectly shot the film, in a 4:3 aspect ratio no less. I have furied over fullscreen most my days and here is a film shot in those parameters and in pristine 35 mm; I durst not complain. Surely I typically prefer "wider," but here is proof that when fullscreen is intended it can and should be embraced. Meek's Cutoff is a picturesque depiction of the high and dry climes they walk and walk through. As the picture above illustrates, some of the colors worn by the characters simply sizzle in the desert sun. The scenes at night are barley discernable. Sometimes the dialogue is the same way. It remains real and never strays. It will no doubt prove challenging for the viewer. I accepted it.
Bruce Greenwood plays Stephen Meek. I realized who the actor was afterwards and was shocked. It is an incredibly masked performance, though he was certainly able to hide behind long hair and a face full o' whiskers. Hence the title, he's the one who led them off the Oregon Trail (remember the game we used to play in elementary school?), which may or may not prove far worse for these weary travelers. Michelle Williams plays Emily: a strong willed lady who is understandably fed up with this trial and won't stand for wandering much longer. Ron Rondeaux plays the Indian who they come paths with, another incredible performance that seems more authentic than anything I've seen in previous Westerns.
I could not help but think of Louis L'Amour's novella The Quick and the Dead as I beheld and pondered this film. Therein an experienced Westerner leads an Eastern family of greenhorns through similarly dangerous lands. He wrote, "These western lands brought death suddenly, without warning, and in a hundred ways. It had a way of exploding into violent action leaving a man broken and bleeding, far from any help. Many a father or son rode away never to return, many a lone hunter left coffee on the fire to picket a horse or fetch a bucket of water, and that was the end of him. Sometimes his bones were found. Often enough not even that."
This threat is always lurking in Meek's Cutoff, more so than most Westerns because Reichardt gives the landscape time enough to prove itself unrelenting. A minimalist score from Jeff Grace certainly added to the effect. Folks, this is a fine film indeed. It is far from your run-of-the-mill blockbuster, but has far more reasons to impact and leave insight.