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Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

January 3, 2012

Originally written for an April 2011 issue of the Glasgow University Guardian

Director Kelly Reichardt’s previous film, the excellent 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 retains similar narrative elements for its tale of settlers in 1845 travelling through the then recently created Oregon Trail that guided wagon trains through dangerous terrains to the remote Pacific Northwest. It also retains Wendy and Lucy stars Michelle Williams and Will Patton, who deliver fine performances in this unusual western, as does Bruce Greenwood, alongside fellow Reichardt newcomers Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson.

A relatively minimalistic approach to filmmaking is Reichardt’s defining feature, and so the characteristics most commonly associated with the western genre, action and plentiful 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 most commonly used for television is incorporated rather than the widescreen most common with westerns, placing the characters in the centre of the frame rather than any landscapes and so creating a great sense of claustrophobia. Also unusual for the genre is the film’s focus more towards the women of the piece rather than men, though Bruce Greenwood’s brash guide character of Meek leaves the longest impression character-wise.

An encounter with a Native American, who the settlers then capture to be used as a guide, 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 an almost frightful tone of doom. It is an absorbing, slower take on western conventions, though lacking in any clear resolution to the escalating dread it builds in its final scenes.

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