By Afra Nariman
Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Stars: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson, Rod Rondeaux
Six settlers in the 1840’s and their guide named Stephen Meek (played by Bruce Greenwood) get lost on their pilgrimage in the desert and have to deal with the fact that they are running out of food and water. They eventually run into a Native American man who may be able to lead them to water. One of the settlers, Emily (played by Michelle Williams), protects the Native American man from the ill-willed and destructive wrath of Meek.
Before I say anything else, it’s important to mention that Meek’s Cutoff naturally isn’t for everyone. It is unbelievably slow, at times it may even feel boring — it isn’t your classic “western.” That being said, you should watch this film if you are prepared to be patient and in the mood for a unique cinematic experience, rather than a exciting or detailed story. The film is methodically astonishing on many different levels. It starts extremely slow and doesn’t have much dialogue for the first 10-15 mins — (In fact, the entire film’s dialogue is carefully selective). Instead, we get a lay of the land, we hear the natural sounds of the vast surroundings, and are ultimately placed in the time and space of the story: 1845, on the Oregon Trail.
Although slow, the film has a constant and gradual build up. Perhaps it never actually reaches a peak, so to say, but I believe that’s the point. Unlike most westerns, Reichardt has created an extremely realistic portrayal of the reality of both the time and the situation. Many westerns, especially early ones, infamously highlighted by John Wayne’s films, are extremely offensive and wrongfully vilify Native Americans. In Meek’s Cutoff, we are given a much more grounded and accurate illustration of the situation at hand. Although I was obviously never there, it’s documented that the biggest existential threats to the lives of people traveling in those times were famine, disease and dehydration — that is what we see in this film. In many respects, pioneers of the time who were traveling on say, The Oregon Trail, as the characters in the film are doing, were too busy trying to survive to have an overly-exciting story to tell of their journey. Meek’s Cutoff stays true to the realistic experiences of the time period.
At many points early in the film, we get lost in the brilliant cinematography and landscapes of the scenes, and then snap out of it to realize that it isn’t 100% clear where the film is headed; but as it progresses, the narrative refines itself and the film eventually takes a distinct direction— though, this ambiguity never truly dissipates. The film’s ending is poetically ambiguous, as well as thought-provoking. No answers are definitively given, as their journey has not yet been completed. Nevertheless, it is a rather satisfying ending to a slow, uneventful, but visually immersive cinematic experience, that speaks loudly to your senses. Meek’s Cutoff is not a film that you should watch if you are looking for something exciting, eventful or action-packed. But if you’re in the mood to focus on a real portrayal of an 1840s western that focuses on the simplicity of life back then and the perils of travel on a landscape that is evidently unsuited for humans; then you will be rewarded by watching this film.