Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Stars: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Shirley Henderson, Will Patton, Paul Dano, Ron Rondeaux.
Unlike other westerns that have dealt with the westward expansion (Westward Ho The Wagons, etc), Meeks’s Cutoff deals with some weighty themes like the struggle for survival, racism and religion. Meek’s Cutoff is an unconventional western that concentrates more on the role of women, who have often been marginalised in the traditional westerns of yesteryear. This shifts the whole dynamic and framework of the genre, which is normally characterised by cattle drives, gunplay, masculine themes and violence.
Set in Oregon in 1845, this revisionist western is based on the true story of three families of settlers heading west who put themselves in the hands of the grizzled veteran guide Stephen Meek (an almost unrecognisable Bruce Greenwood), who was leading them to new lands. He was taking them through a shortcut over some inhospitable lands, when the expedition becomes lost. Supplies dwindle and they face thirst, dehydration, hunger, and their own fear of death.
They also capture an Indian (stuntman and former rodeo player Ron Rondeaux), and they disagree on what to do with him. Some argue that he will lead them into danger, while some trusts that he will to lead them to water. There are a number of cultural differences and communication problems between the settlers and their Indian guide that further complicate their situation.
Meek’s Cutoff has been beautifully written by Jonathon Raymond, and the literate screenplay gives us intimate insights into these pioneers heading towards a new frontier. This is Raymond’s third collaboration with director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy And Lucy), and the pair have developed an innate understanding of their individual styles and are able to complement their vision for the film. The film is full of Reichardt’s usual touches and minimalist style – the sparse dialogue, the long passages of silence, the slow and deliberate pace, the insightful and subtle look at the way in which her characters interact with their environment. And of course there is her usual abrupt and ambiguous ending that leaves the situation unresolved, and allows the audience to impose their own ending on the material.
Reichardt and Raymond have also suggested that the film is a subversive allegory on the Bush years, in particular the US involvement in Iraq and post 9/11 tensions.
Reichardt has assembled a solid ensemble cast the flesh out the characters, including Michelle Williams (from Wendy And Lucy) as the feisty and opinionated Emily, who eventually takes charge of the troupe. Shirley Henderson, Paul Dano, and Will Patton lend solid support.
This is a low budget production, but Reichardt’s austere approach effectively captures the hardships of the settlers battling a harsh environment. Everything about the film reeks of authenticity, from the costumes and period detail to the rugged locations themselves. Reichardt also had her performers learn survival skills during the shoot.
The film was actually shot on location in the wilderness of Oregon where much of the story took place, a setting that has remained largely unchanged for two centuries. The characters are often dwarfed by the settings, which almost become another character in the drama, and this emphasises their vulnerability and sense of isolation.
Christopher Blauvert’s rich, widescreen cinematography is breathtakingly evocative, and he beautifully brings the locations to life. Visually the film is highly reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven. Jeff Grace’s eerie score also adds to the atmosphere of this unusual character driven western. Despite its surface beauty though, Meek’s Cutoff is a film of limited interest and will not appeal to fans of the traditional western.
Screens at ACMI from June 2, as part of their focus on Kelly Reichardt. Running from June 2-June 19, this season will also screen Reichardt’s other films Old Joy, Wendy And Lucy, as well has her earler films, the rarely screened River Of Grass and Ode.
Screenwriter Jon Raymond will also participate in a Q&A by phone on Monday June 13, following the 1.00pm screening of Meek’s Cutoff.