Meek’s Cutoff may be set in the old American West, but it is hardly a western. With its components defying all convention of the genre, this tale of a pioneering trek across the Oregon Trail is reminiscent of Gus Van Zant’s Gerry, and has the pacing of Sophia Coppola’s Somewhere. It’s slow. But it has to be. The year is 1895, and everything takes time and has its due procedure. The film is a hard sell, but it’s a work of Kelly Reichardt, and in true form she delivers exactly what we expect of her – challenging, subtle cinema that features the beauty of the North-western landscape, and embraces the female perspective.
Sharing the similar themes of hopelessness and travel that exists in her previous films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, in Meek’s Cutoff the prospects shrink to a narrow bleak desperation. Bathed in the warm light of the setting sun, Thomas Gately (Paul Dano) carves the word ‘lost’ into a dry, dead branch. It is the first word communicated in the film, but its blatant explanation is not necessary. The opening montage of long takes, (although sensual in their exposition of the land’s rich tones) present the unforgiving details of this arduous journey. The women’s dresses are stained by mud, and their filthy fingernails and sun burned faces silently divulge the imminent tragedy of the coterie. Mr. Meek, a callous mountain man played by the unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood has been hired to lead the wagon settlers through the Cascade Mountains into the promise land of Columbia. The families are caught in a maze of disorientation as they realize Mr. Meek might be leading them astray. No one trusts him. The men keep watch over their shoulders and the women whisper among themselves, as each gender group discusses his fate and motivation. Has he purposely taken them off track or is he is too coward to admit that he doesn’t actually know the way? Is Mr. Meek ignorant or evil?
The heart of the film rests is in Michelle Williams’s performance as Emily Tetherow, a strong willed settler who maintains the social norms and politeness of society even though she is trapped in the jungle of the Wild West. She fetches water, mills grain, starts the morning fire, yet has an opinion and is not afraid to wield it – a female perspective rarely seen in this environment. For the first half of the film, the men participate in spurts of non-expository dialogue which are shot at a distance, excluding audience from information which would normally be integral to the story. But here, the story is secondary to the experience. As the women are kept at arm’s length, Reichardt subsequently chooses to keep the audience out of the loop. The woman watch and the men decide, until a fateful moment that challenges the status quo of male centered decision making, when Emily Tetherow takes their collective fate into her own hands.
The painstaking form of Meek’s Cutoff is sure to alienate the average movie go-er and the film itself can be used as a prime example of the polarizing power of cinema. I was drawn to it for this exact reason. It has been a consistent inclusion in many critics’ 2011 top ten lists, yet the gleaned audience response to the film has been an epic fail. Knowing the background of where this film comes from helps to have an open perspective. Kelly Reichardt has a day job. Her films are not money makers, but she is passionate about cinema and devoted to giving us unique works of art that simmer in the back of your mind, and have a lasting impression. It’s a great film, if you give it the time and space it needs to unfold naturally.