Meek and Mild
"Meek's Cutoff" is the type of movie that big critics tend to love, I'm not privy to their reasons but part of me wonders whether because it is so different too mainstream cinema that it is like a breath of fresh air. And that is the thing about "Meek's Cutoff", it is very different, very minimal and stripped bare of everything you expect from modern cinema. In fact I would go as far as saying that it is almost stripped off a storyline as well because what there is is quite small. Does that automatically make "Meek's Cutoff" good, no, does it make it interesting well sort off, but it certainly makes it an experience, one where story and meaning is not served up on a plate like so many modern movies.
The year is 1845 and Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood - National Treasure: Book of Secrets) has been employed to lead 3 families on a wagon trail across Oregon and the Cascade Mountains. But as each day passes it becomes more and more apparent to the travellers that Meek has little idea of where they are and is getting them more and more lost on his supposed short cut. With water supplies and food dwindling, plus hazardous terrain to cross it is a gruelling trek which tests their faith. When the capture a native Indian who has been watching them they have to decide whether or not to continue following Meek or hope the Indian can lead them out despite having no way to communicate and understand each other especially when Indians are the enemy.
One of the first things to grab your attention is that director Kelly Reichardt employs a 1.33 : 1 aspect ratio and it feels strange in a world of widescreen having basically a boxed image. Why has she done this, is she trying to imitate the westerns from years ago, I doubt it, but I am sure it is more to do with mirroring the smallness of the few people whose journey we follow. There are just a small band of people wandering in a vast open expanse and that is how the image feels, small swimming in its black surroundings. This element of being small also shows up in other elements such as one of the travellers carrying the tiniest of birds in a battered old bird cage, the smallness of it feels strange, but makes a point.
But that is not the only thing which feels very different about "Meek's Cutoff" and the opening which is devoid of speech, close ups or soundtrack feels very strange with just the noise of a river and creaking wagon wheels to break the uncomfortable silence. And I could go on because as a western "Meek's Cutoff" isn't anything like those which have filled up the archives of cinema. We have characters that are not full of themselves, they look dirty, their outfits hide their faces as does their beards and they don't speak much, and when they do it is usually in the darkness of night. And where as we have a sort of trail movie the danger isn't from Indians, or outlaws, or wild animals but more real things such as water running out, dehydration, broken wagons and the need to scale hills and slopes. Basically everything you think you know from watching westerns can be forgotten as Reichardt strips it bare to real drama and danger.
But here is the thing we have this tale of this small posse of men and women lead by Stephen Meek who despite his bravado is obviously lost and has lead them into danger and they find themselves having to put their faith in a solitary Indian prisoner who doesn't speak the language to lead them to water. It may strip bare all the layers which we have become accustomed to and laid bare what the reality of being on a wagon trail was like but it is slow and a little dull. Now there is some depth to this as we have the question over having faith in this man who really should be an enemy, we have the scepticism of some of them and Meek who would rather kill the Indian but it just seems to be lacking something even for a movie which is trying to be different. Yes there is all the symbolism such as the tiny bird and so on but even then it still is lacking that little something which makes you want to get to the end.
But whilst it maybe lacking in the storyline department, almost feeling a bit docu-drama-ish at times it certainly doesn't lack in the acting department. And each of the actors be it Paul Dano and Will Patton as a couple of the husbands on the trail to Bruce Greenwood who behind the layers of hair and beard growls like a man who has lived as a frontiersman deliver very different sorts of characters. But it is Michelle Williams as Emily Thetherow who stands out because she plays a strong woman, not a dominant woman or someone who feels manufactured but a settler who did what ever was needed to survive, even putting their faith in a man who they cannot understand.
What this all boils down to is that "Meek's Cutoff" is a good movie but it is also one which is seriously different to the norm. From the look to the stripped bare production and story it simply feels very different. And maybe a little too different because whilst it is a breath of fresh air for those who watch lots of movies it is hard going for anyone not use to movies which buck the trend.