TIFF Review: Meek’s Cutoff

 

 

 

The western art film that is Meek’s Cutoff is a curious concoction, introducing the minimalist sensibilities of Kelly Reichardt’s previous films, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, to a canvas wider in scope and historical import. It’s 1845 and Stephen Meek is a for-hire guide leading a handful of immigrant families across the Oregon Trail in search of the American dream. As hours turn into days since their last discovery of fresh water, mutinous thoughts and paranoid rumors abound among the families over the ability and motivations of their delegated leader. “We ain’t lost, we are just finding our way” is Meek’s obtuse reply. The barren landscape is no place for semantics, as desperation takes its course the cutoff they have taken leave them with no choice but to go further into uncharted territory. Along the way a Cayuse Indian enters the story, testing the faith and prejudices of those involved he becomes a potential key to their very survival. Not knowing who to trust while the water reserves dwindle and the desert heat swelters, the settlers wrestle over questions of ethics and necessity. Part suspense story, part historical drama, part meditation on the frailty of life, Meek’s Cutoff is a mesmerizing feat that while slow-moving is continually engrossing to watch.

Chief among its qualities is the sheer beauty of it all. Foregoing the impulse for John Ford escapism, Reichardt chose the 1.35:1 aspect ratio to tell her story, denying the vista widescreen cinema we are accustom to in the genre in order to evoke the confined headspace of the settlers unable to see what awaits them over every hill and valley. Every advantage of the new ratio is played out in her compositions, taking on a framed simplicity of a Millet painting. The light hues of costumes and covered wagons by day are intermittently broken up with dimly lit campfire nights each affording their own vestiges of historical authenticity, the day/night intervals adding to the calm monotony to which the film paces itself. The quiet rhythm is reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, another story of individuals lost in a desert, were it not for Meek’s boisterous posturing and Emily Tetherow’s (Michelle Williams) vocal resistance, the film could have quite easily slipped into the fugue-like listlessness of Gerry, but Reichardt every so often breaks the silence with these bouts of ego and frustration.

Outside of Meek, there is little to speak of with regards to character and performance considering how subdued the proceedings are, though Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Paul Dano, and Will Patton all work within their modest roles admirably. The titular role of Meek is played mischievously by Bruce Greenwood apparently channeling Yosemite Sam under his burly beard. The thorn in his side, Emily Tetherow, is played fiercely by Michelle Williams, essentially the heroine of the story. Though mostly an exchange of glances, her coy relationship with the Cayuse Indian is central to the quandaries of faith in the film. Emily is a woman of her times and yet in this unnatural setting and situation prone to vocal dissent, the faint emergence of feminist attitude while blindly harboring prejudices of her own.

There is more than one cutoff at play in Meek’s Cutoff and for some this aspect of the film may upset or excite, depending on your proclivity. At first I was disappointed, but upon consideration understand that it had to happen this way. A gorgeous film, one of the best of the festival, Meek’s Cutoff is one I plan to come back to again and again.

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Andrew James
Admin

Oh man, this sounds absolutely incredible. I want to see this yesterday. My general distaste for Dano is shattered by the rest of the cast. Sounds like a role tailormade for Greenwood(!). The subject matter resonates with me as well.

James McNally
Guest

Looking forward to seeing this on Sunday. Since it will be my last film, might be too exhausted to attempt writing about it, but appreciate your review!

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Andrew James
Admin

I liked the movie for a lot of reasons and it bugged the crap out of me for a lot of reasons. I’ve come to the conclusion that Paul Dano sucks – or at the very least I’m not a fan of his particular brand of acting/characterization.

SPOILERS***

The film lost me with the lowering the wagons down the hill scene. Settlers at that time would not have been that stupid and at that point I hoped they all died – for they got what they deserve after that. Up until that point I really was digging everything.

The ending is fantastic, though I’m sure it will aggravate a lot of people. More of a cutoff even than No Country for Old Men.

rot
Guest

I didn’t find anything in the film far-fetched. Are you a closeted pioneer historian, Andrew?

I agree with Paul Dano, not a fan, but he didn’t have a whole lot to do in this film.

Andrew James
Admin

**SPOILER**

Had nothing to do with history.

But maybe, just maybe(!?), one would think to remove from the wagon the one barrel of water and food they have before manually lowering a rickety 1/2 ton cart down a steep hillside with a piece of twine? Just a thought.

rot
Guest

have to rewatch, I don’t remember how the scene plays out.

Jonathan
Admin

This is now streaming on Netflix, FYI.

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