‘Meek’s Cutoff’ Turns Physical Journey Into Riveting Spiritual Drama

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CHICAGO – Very few films have ever conveyed an impending sense of doom as successfully as Kelly Reichardt’s stunningly accomplished “Meek’s Cutoff,” a journey into the past that has resonance for any era. Which way do you go when you’ve lost the map? Who do you trust when you can’t see beyond the horizon? How does man simply keep moving forward when it’s so unclear where we’re going?

“Meek’s Cutoff” is a spectacular drama, a piece of work with nary a flawed element. From the riveting performances (including at least two of the best of the year so far) to Reichardt’s strikingly sparse visual compositions to a script that took so many narrative risks, “Meek’s Cutoff” dares the viewer to wander the desolate landscape with its characters. Some will be unwilling to make the journey. It’s a slow film, to be sure, but that’s not meant as a criticism as much as it is a warning.

Meek’s Cutoff
Meek’s Cutoff
Photo credit: Oscilloscope Pictures

There are numerous passages of “Meek’s Cutoff” without a single word of dialogue and the squeaky wheel of a covered wagon is the only sound that can be heard (as long as the cows are being quiet). This is not a film for everyone and even fans are likely to be stunned at the pace, but it’s a film that works its way under your skin as you become part of a nightmarish convoy across the old West. Thanks to brilliant directorial decisions matched by a cast that was clearly inspired by this unique effort, this will surely be one of the most memorable films of 2011.

The title refers to Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a bearded, world-weary, tough-guy guide who is transporting three couples across desolation to build a new society. There are no roads, no signs of water, and no signs of civilization. But they follow Meek across the plains, hoping that the hill over the next horizon will bring hope. The couples include the Tetherows (Michelle Williams & Will Patton), The Gatelys (Paul Dano & Zoe Kazan), and the Whites (Shirley Henderson & Neal Huff).

It’s clear from the very beginning that this group has been travelling for some time. As the search for water becomes more and more desperate, they begin to openly wonder if Meek knows where he is going. After an encounter with a resident of Indian country (Rod Rondeaux), the situation becomes even more divisive as the group questions whether or not there may be a better choice for guide than the man who got them into this predicament.

Meek’s Cutoff
Meek’s Cutoff
Photo credit: Oscilloscope Pictures

Shooting in 1:1 full frame, Reichardt gives “Meek’s Cutoff” the feel of an old-fashioned Western while also limiting the audience’s perspective. There are shots in “Meek’s” where the screen is cut off in such a way that we can’t see the beginning or end of the convoy as we would in widescreen, adding to the sensation that these people are truly lost. We feel lost along with them. It adds a sense of unease.

Another brilliant decision was made when Reichardt chose not to leave the women of the group. As the men discuss what to do next in the distance, we have to strain to hear them, as if we were with the wagons and children, adding to a sense of helplessness that grows as the film progresses. “Meek’s Cutoff” is the kind of film that looks technically sparse but that features so many smart behind-the-scenes decisions that they merely blend into the fabric of the overall experience. (The only negative in that regard is the sometimes-overdone score. There’s very little of it, but I would have preferred none at all as Reichardt makes such strong use of natural sound like the squeaky wheel and sand-filled wind.)

Meek’s Cutoff
Meek’s Cutoff
Photo credit: Oscilloscope Pictures

As for performances, Greenwood has been a spectacular character actor for years but this is one of his best turns. He goes from leader to someone unsure of himself to eventual follower. He’s spectacular. And I can’t ever get enough of Williams. She makes everything she does feel real. She’s perfect here yet again. The whole cast works, even if it does feel like Dano and Patton have played roles like these a few too many times (and I wanted a bit more of Kazan, a young actress with a ton of potential).

“Meek’s Cutoff” is a film that could have multiple interpretations. Some will say that it is a commentary on our times. Some will see a piece about a bygone era. Some will go home and just be happy that they have a GPS. Some will fall asleep. For this critic, the smart filmmaking decisions and stunning performances worked their way into something of a Western symphony. It’s a beautiful one.

”Meek’s Cutoff” stars Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, and Rod Rondeaux. It was written and directed by Kelly Reichardt.

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