52 Movies: Week 11
Meek’s Cutoff is a minimalist movie with a lot to say.
I will warn you upfront that, if you do not like minimalist movies, Meek’s Cutoff is not for you. Not a lot happens over the course of the movie’s two-plus hours and the issues the film raises are explored with great subtly. Though there is little to no action, indeed, perhaps because there is little to no action, this is a true western.
Meek’s Cutoff is the story of three families making their way along the Oregon trail in 1845. Their guide, the vain and likely incompetent Stephen Meek, (Bruce Greenwood), has taken them on a shortcut and now they are hopelessly lost. It is notable that this incident takes place before the movie starts — These folks are lost from the moment we first meet them. As the party’s water begins to dwindle, each character struggles to come to terms with the potential hopelessness of their situation.
One of the film’s dominant forces comes in the personage of Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) whose quiet conviction and certainty is in direct contrast to the impotent bluster of Stephen Meek. Director Kelly Reichardt does an incredible job of presenting these events from Emily’s point of view. Deliberations take place just out of earshot of the women and, unless you turn subtitles on, you will only catch bits and pieces of what is being said. Emily’s husband, the aptly named Soloman, (Will Patton), brings her up to speed afterwards but it is clear, at least initially, that this is a time and a place where the decisions are made by the men. The women are at the mercy of the men’s judgement, the men are in turn at the mercy of Meek’s judgement and everyone is at the mercy of nature’s judgement.
This is the state of affairs at the start of the film. As is often the case, crisis reveals true character and we find that Emily and Solomon are good partners. He is judicious and an optimist. She accepts the potential hopelessness of their situation but refuses to be resigned. While nature may be implacable, she can certainly assert her will to prevent the likes of Stephen Meek from making their situation worse.
Reichardt also does a great job of conveying the implacability of nature. The movie makes use of many long shots contrasting the smallness of the party against the endless, baron, desert scrub but, at the same time, the aspect ratio is narrow, conveying a sense of claustrophobia. The landscape is not monotonous, however — Each scene brings a new and unique vista but each is as hopeless as the last.
Meek’s Cutoff is not for everyone but, if you enjoy the occasional minimalist film, this one is incredibly well done. Having spent time in Death Valley, I can think back to what this country must have been like for the early pioneers and Meek’s Cutoff likely captures the reality of that experience better than any traditional western I’ve ever seen. Needless to say, given the cast, the performances are all excellent. I’m debating how many stars to give it — If I am judging the movie objectively, this is a five star movie easily. If I’m ranking it subjectively against other movies that I love, I might give it four stars just because minimalism has its drawbacks when it comes to watch-ability. Either way, it’s an excellent movie.