Tuesday, July 26, 2011

New Release Review: Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2011)

Meek's Cutoff, a frontier western directed by Kelly Reichhardt (Wendy and Lucy), first played in competition at the 67th Venice International Film Festival and has hit cinemas in 2011. I missed a screening at the Sydney Film Festival, but managed to catch one today, at the very end of its limited Sydney release at Dendy Cinemas. It is based on a historical incident on the Oregon Trail in 1845, in which frontier guide Stephen Meek led a wagon train on an ill-fated journey through the Oregon desert, charting the route known as the Meek Cutoff.

Set in the wilderness of the Cascade Mountains and the Oregon High Desert in 1845, a small band of settlers with three wagons have split from the main train to take a shortcut under the leadership of Meek (Bruce Greenwood). We are thrust straight into their journey, with several wonderful early shots of the wagon train laboriously journeying over the perilous terrain. We are caught up on events through a whispered conversation between Emily and Solomon Tetherow (Michelle Williams and Will Patton), who suspect that Meek may not in fact know where he is going. With no end in sight, what was initially proposed to be a two-week journey has now stretched into five.

The families start to wonder if they are lost and question the motivations of their ignorant and arrogant guide. Tensions start to run high as water becomes increasingly scarce and their supplies run low, with the women, unable to participate in the decision-making, forced to look on as Meek and their husbands disagree on the next course of action. Emily begins to overthrow Meek's power by opposing his decision to kill a captured lone Indian (Rod Rondenaux), believing the man can lead them to water. She tends to him, providing him water and mending his shoe, in the hope that he will help them.

Meek's ego is bruised by the families' desperate decision to trust the Indian, and expresses his strong discomfort with surrendering their lives to the hands of a man he considers a savage. Indeed, can they trust the Indian? Will he lead them to water, or into a trap? Alternatively, can they trust Meek? For all they know he is the reason they are lost. These questions plague the settlers, as they battle the harsh and unfamiliar terrain (at one point having to manoeuvre their wagons down a steep incline) and keep their wits about them despite their battered morale and ever-worsening state of dehydration.

Reichardt, I believe true to her earlier films, adopts a minimalist approach, with the accompanying score the most notable feature stripped from the mise-en-scene. Often all that is audible is the grunting of the oxen pulling the wagons and the creak of the wooden wheels on the dry, rocky earth. There is also very evident attention to the details of the era; especially the costumes, the design of the wagons, and the women engaged in their pastimes, which were no doubt drawn from accounts of early frontier settlers.

The bold utilisation of the 4:3 Academy ratio (a tight square) initially threw me at the beginning. Initially I thought the masking was way off, but then I realised it was intentional and got used to it. Big cheer for Dendy cinemas for projecting the film as it was intended. This has the effect of confining the image, leaving the characters often oddly framed. At times I thought this limited the effect of portraying their insignificance within their surroundings as the wider lens would have done, but it instead emphasises that their most potentially destructive struggle existed within the troupe itself. The gorgeous photography by Christopher Blauvelt also expertly uses the natural light, with the sun drenched daytime sequences simply stunning to behold. The night sequences, which feature the most dialogue and render the characters as more important to be heard than seen, are barely illuminated by the light from the fire or gas lamp.

Bruce Greenwood, unrecognisable under the bushy beard, is certainly the most showy of the performances. He builds a very interesting character; one whose motivations are mysterious and whose ego is self-accentuated, but whose dislike for the Native Indians (the 'redskins' he calls them) and his love for recounting his various escapades, are obvious. Michelle Williams (Oscar nominee for Blue Valentine last year) is always impressive, giving another solid performance as the strong-willed woman with the intuition to see what the men are clearly not, and the headstrong desire to overthrow the power struggle and be a part of the life-and-death decision making. The rest of the cast, which also features Paul Dano (There Will be Blood) and Shirley Henderson (Wonderland) are all effective, if not particularly memorable.

Meek's Cutoff is not a film that will appeal to everybody. It's a slow-burner that rewards patience and strict attention throughout. It covers much more than a group of people plodding through the desert; despite the entirety of the film comprising of the tense journey and the obstacles they encounter. The open ending is another bold stroke, and one that will no doubt aggravate those audience members who desire closure. There was that usual scoff/laugh from several audience members today, which always annoys me. But for a story based on an ill-fated mission from 1845, I think the decision to leave the audience with the challenge to speculate the fates of the characters themselves was a commendable one. This is a film that doesn't hand over its story for easy consumption or dazzle with typical Western tropes. It is a film I liked very much; a thoughtful and powerful tale that delivers through controlled direction, a picturesque depiction of the harsh frontier and attention to subtle details.

My Rating: 4 Stars (B+)


  1. This one really looks like my kind of film. Hopefully it gets a DVD release soon. I missed it when it was showing in my city in May, the one day I made it to the cinema they couldn't screen it because of some technical problem.

  2. Interesting...this is on my 'maybe' list for the film festival. Depends on when it is playing. I really liked Wendy and Lucy, so I hope this doesn't disappoint.

  3. Excellent review. Here's mine - http://totheescapehatch.blogspot.com/2011/06/escape-by-fording-river-meeks-cutoff.html.

    Dark of the Matinee said the aspect ratio was meant to mimic the women's "under the bonnet" POV. Don't know if that's actually what the filmmakers intended but interesting...


  4. @ Bonjour - I think you would like it, yes. It's requires some patience because it does move slow, but there is ample reward along the way. Really interesting use of the aspect ratio, and quite stunning photography. Shame that you couldn't see it at the cinema.

    @ Stevee - There are a lot of great films at the NZFF, and if only have the time to see 5-10, there are some others I would pick out first, but give it a go eventually.

    @ Robert - Thanks for the link. I checked out both yours and Hatter. I thought his comment about the bonnets was interesting also.

  5. I found it a hard film to love, but an easy film to appreciate. And my respect for it has only gone up in the months since I saw it, and I expect will only increase on rewatch. I did like how deliberate everything is in it, going right down to the aspect ratio (which Andrea Arnold also used unexpectedly for Fish Tank). It's wonderful to see filmmakers choose aspect ratios and compositions purposefully rather than just going with a common standard because it's standard.

  6. Yeah, as I said, I was thrown initially. But I grew to appreciate it and think it was a bold move. It has remained with me since the viewing. Subtle details, and that final shot. It has me pondering the outcome. For me, that makes for a great film. I don't know if I will watch it again, but right now, it would be present in my Top 20 of year!