VOD film review: Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
Josh Slater-Williams | On 30, Nov 2020
Director Kelly Reichardt’s 2008 drama Wendy and Lucy was concerned with the tribulations faced by a young woman setting her sights on a new life in Alaska, travelling with limited funds and supplies. Meek’s Cutoff, her 2010 follow-up, retains similar narrative elements for its tale of settlers in 1845 travelling through the Oregon Trail that guided wagon trains through dangerous terrains to the remote Pacific Northwest. It retains Wendy and Lucy stars Michelle Williams and Will Patton, who deliver fine performances in this unusual Western, as do Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson.
A relatively minimalistic approach to filmmaking defines much of Reichardt’s work. And so, in Meek’s Cutoff, certain characteristics associated with the Western genre, namely gun-based set-pieces and chatty dialogue, are shunned in order to focus on the harsh realities of the pioneer lifestyle. This harshness is intensified by the way in which the film is shot. The square-like 1.33 format is incorporated rather than the widescreen aspect ratios common with most modern revisionist Westerns (eg. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), often centring characters in the frame of a majority of shots, cutting parts of them off at times, and so creating a great sense of claustrophobia despite the wide open setting.
Also unusual for the genre is the film’s focus towards the women of the piece rather than men, though Bruce Greenwood’s brash guide character of Stephen Meek leaves the longest impression character-wise in terms of narrative impact. Hired to lead the settlers thanks to his supposed experience with the territory, his proposed shortcuts away from the established routes that have served others well in the past lead them towards apparent danger as their drinking water supplies dwindle, the estimated two-week journey having already reached five towards the film’s start. Whether intentionally sabotaging the mission for some nefarious reason or just making a string of legitimate mistakes, Meek’s macho posturing at all times means he never acknowledges he is at fault. As Williams’ Emily puts it, “I don’t blame him for not knowing. I blame him for saying he did.”
An encounter with a lone Native American (Rod Rondeaux), who the settlers capture to be used as an additional guide through the wilderness, at the behest of certain members of their party, leads the film down an almost hallucinatory path. With the inability of the characters to understand anything about the man, and the lack of any translating subtitles for the viewer combined with an increasing sense of hopelessness perpetuated by the ineptitude of the slimy Meek, the film takes on a frightful tone of doom as the men butting heads creates even more obstacles. This is an absorbing, gorgeous, purposefully unhurried take on the myth-making of the American West, deliberately lacking in any clear resolution for the escalating dread it builds in its final scenes.
Meek’s Cutoff is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.