There’s hardly anything conventional about Meek’s Cutoff, the latest film from indie director Kelly Reichardt that follows a group of settlers as they make a dangerous trip through Oregon’s harsh desert conditions in 1845.
No, it’s not quite ‘Oregon Trail’ come to life, but you wouldn’t be wrong to have that first thought. The western genre has taken a number of twists and turns ever since John Ford and John Wayne did their bit to immortalize the image of the cowboy and native american on the screen years ago.
Simple and straightforward American pictures turned into huge Hollywood productions which turned into Italy getting in on the game, creating their own, more unique take on America’s old west. And while good entries in the genre have been rare lately, unique films do still exist – contemporary western No Country for Old Men and the masterpiece The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford might be the two best examples.
Reichardt’s ‘indie’ take on the genre is certainly different. Meek’s Cutoff is a contemplative approach often unseen in the western genre. Reichardt sheds the film of most normal conventions found inside the long history of the genre and comes up with her own way of doing things.
Most notably is her decision to film in a full frame aspect ratio instead of opting for the more common widescreen approach. While directors like Ford mastered shooting westerns in full screen, I doubt they much preferred being cramped in style like that. But Reichardt explained her decision by relating it to the perspective the story is told from – the woman’s. That alone makes Meek’s Cutoff a unique western. In an NPR interview, Reichardt likened the bonnets the women wear as their full frame restriction. They see life through different eyes and she wanted to represent it that way.
Whether you buy that or not, it’s her film, and if she wants to bring tense forward more so than beautiful, sprawling shots of the west, then so be it. Reichardt also films in a most stagnant style, with the camera sometimes never moving, just sitting and watching. It’s an interesting choice that I think goes back to her idea that while a lot exists outside of the small caravan of traveling people, we don’t know what it is. So the camera sits and waits and never shows us anything other than what the men and women see.
Meek’s Cutoff also won’t fly with every audience. Its realism could be its Achilles heel for some viewers. There are a number of moments where there’s no dialog spoken, just people walking. But what else could there be? A lot doesn’t happen inside the just under two hours of the film either. It’s a pivotal segment of a long journey, a portion of the entirety. But that doesn’t mean points should be taken away automatically. Instead, judge what Reichardt’s intentions were and go from there.
One of my favorite things about Meek’s Cutoff was its use of lighting. It becomes clear quickly that Reichardt only used what was available to her. Scenes at night are as dark as they should be. In moments where the travelers are sitting around a fire, you sometimes can’t make out an entire person’s face. But then the film cuts to morning or afternoon the next day and the sun beams into your airs. It’s an attack on your pupils if you watch this film in complete darkness. The light almost blinds you as well.
A great western always uses its surroundings as an “enemy,” one convention Reichardt does maintain. Portions of this movie reminded me of the great Wages of Fear, where the real danger and conflict came from the travel. Obviously, the two are completely different in pretty much every single way, but the dynamic remains the same. There is some conflict between characters, specifically the white travelers and the Native American they come across, but the real conflict exists between people and nature, a huge theme among most successful westerns.
The screenplay doesn’t exist without some smart play between characters – but not many. A lot of the male characters, outside of the titular Stephen Meek, the rugged cowboy playing guide to the travelers, are unexplored. But the triangle relationship between Williams’ Emily Tetherow, Meek and the Native American they hold captive is wonderful. It’s subtle, but it works. Of course, Tetherow and Meek can’t communicate verbally with the Native American, making things a bit tricky, but it works. Williams performance is terrific and probably the best in the entire film considering how little was given to the actors to begin with.
Meek’s Cutoff is a rugged, dirty western that sheds most conventions of its ancestors. I can see it becoming very polarizing between audiences, but if you let each silent and tense moment build inside of you, the outcome will be pleasing.