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Meek's Cutoff - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Meek's Cutoff
Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: C+

It's hard to come up with much to say about Meek's Cutoff, so little actually happens in it. There are all of nine characters total, and the entire story consists of them wandering aimlessly in the Oregon plains of 1845, searching desperately for water.

"Desperate" is a strong word here, though, because although that's definitely what is felt, it's quite subtly rendered here, by both the cast and director Kelly Reichardt. A whole lot of time is spent with this party simply walking, slowly exhausting themselves, looking at the barren landscape. The film opens with them crossing a river, which proves significant because it turns out to be the last usable water they can find. The camera looks at them from a distance, and they all cross in turns, holding possessions over their heads, and taking their sweet time at it. Then, there are several scenes of this nature -- wide shots showing vast views of the land -- before any of the characters even speak.

There are three families, each with their own wagon. More accurately, two couples and one family, as only one of them has a child, evidently a preteen, with them. They are all following Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) as their guide, but are already suspicious that Meek doesn't really know where the hell he's going. Eventually they run across an Indian (or "Redskin," as Meek seems fond of calling him), played with dubious shiftiness by stuntman Rod Rondeaux. Meek is quick to suggest simply killing him. The rest of the party figures the man must know the area and can lead them to water.

Curiously, Reichardt places her focus mostly on the three wives, played by Zoe Kazan as the increasingly paranoid one; Shirly Henderson as the staid and cautious one; and Michelle Williams as the stoic and surprisingly resourceful one. In all cases, they spend much time on screen simply being silent, in some cases shown standing out of the way of their men but straining to listen to their conversations. There is a clear overtone of deference to men, and yet at least one of the women (Michelle Williams) proves capable of taking charge of a situation. Given that none of the men are portrayed as particularly helpless, one wonders how realistic her bravery in the face of the first Indian she's ever encountered really is.

One major difficulty with Meek's Cutoff is the sound editing. This is clearly a pretty low-budget film, and there are times when background noise overwhelms the frustratingly quiet dialogue, which is necessitated by characters not wanting Meek to hear them. The first time a genuine conversation takes place, several scenes into the film, it's filled with critical information about their situation -- but much of it is impossible to decipher. If it revealed anything about how long they had been on the road, where they came from, or how or why they came to hire Meek as a guide, I have no idea.

The husbands, who do most of the decision-making, are given less prominence, and we are given little chance to really get to know them. The only one who even comes close to standing out is Paul Dano, perhaps largely because he's the only one whose emoting is not obscured by excessive facial hair.

Meek's Cutoff is not for the short of attention span. I fancy myself unusually impervious to slow pacing -- as long as it's done well -- but there was at least one moment when I started to get fidgety because nothing was happening besides people either walking or standing around. It must also be understood, however, that this was the nature of the lives being led. (Whether that translates very well to cinema is perhaps more up for debate.) This film does give a depiction of nineteenth century Western life that at least feels unusually authentic.

And to its credit, Meek's Cutoff certainly refuses to pander to its audience. There are no black and white heroes and villains here, no implausibly dynamic groups of people, no tidy tying of loose ends. Really there's just the undercurrent of desperation -- arguably the one thing that prevents the film from being completely dull. That is, for those with an appreciation for this kind of approach to cinema, which is certainly not going to be everyone.

(L-R) Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan and Michelle Williams fill the static screen with womanly grit in 'Meek's Cutoff'.

Overall: B
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