DVD Review - Meek's Cutoff

Kelly Reichardt is a filmmaker that is often less concerned with plot, as she's more about character and atmosphere. Her recent films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy are prime examples of how she likes to establish mood, often with little to no music, and how she examines people, particularly through behavior, generally wordless behavior. Reichardt takes that same approach and applies it to an Old Western setting.

Meek's Cutoff puts us in the mid-nineteenth century and witnesses a covered wagon crossing a river, led by an ox. Various shots follow of antebellum people with the covered wagon, as part of a caravan, gathering water and using it for tasks like satisfying thirst and washing clothes. One of those people carves into a tree stump the word, "lost." The people traveling with the caravan continue on their journey, but, as the movie progresses, we realize they truly are lost.

The people wander into desert territory. The heat and lack of water take its toll. The trek becomes arduous and one that might end in their deaths. It's reminiscent of Peter Weir's The Way Back. It's people on an endless walk, a possible death march. They have no clue where they are or if they're going in a direction that will lead to water or to some human settlement.

Unlike most Westerns made yesteryear or even nowadays, Reichardt tells this tale mostly from the point-of-view of the women of this caravan. There are actually three, covered wagons, which consist of two married couples, one of which has a child, and along for the ride are a young man of indeterminate relation and a third woman of indeterminate relation, possibly a sister. Conversations about what's happening or what they should do are held by the men and at a distance from the women.

Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain and Blue Valentine) plays Emily Tetherow, one of the women who's not content to keep at a distance and to keep quiet. The women for the most part stay hush and simply stride behind the men. During stops, they tend to menial chores, but Emily is a bit bolder and stronger. She'll ask her husband questions, typically at night under the cover of lantern light, but she does challenge things. Unlike the other women, she even knows how to load a musket.

One thing she certainly challenges and for which at times feels like she needs to raise her musket is the man who is supposed to be the caravan's guide, a man who is supposed to know the countryside and who is supposed to help them find water and a place to settle. That man is named Stephen Meek, played by Bruce Greenwood. Meek is a long-bearded man who's always telling stories and quoting the Bible. He also has a particular xenophobia against Indians.

His xenophobia comes to a head when Emily discovers an Indian on their trail. Emily's husband and Mr. Meek capture him, but they are unable to learn where he came from, why he was on their trail or if he knows where water is. They don't speak the same language. All that is evident is he doesn't pose much of a threat, despite Meek's paranoia.

As you might expect, there is a standoff with guns pointing, ready to fire, but Reichardt's film chronicles the slow build of desperation that must have plagued travelers on the Oregon trail or other cross-country trips in the 1800s. The direction, the production design and details put us right into the reality of the situation. We feel the desperation, the sweat. We even feel the dirt on these people.

Even though we feel this dirt and sweat, Reichardt gives us a beauty here and there. Her cinematography is perhaps her most glorious. Of course, my bias for landscapes may be a factor. Yet, anyone can point a camera at a wide expanse and call it beautiful, but what a filmmaker puts in the frame and how that filmmaker moves that camera matters.

In the first few minutes, Reichardt proves she's not just randomly pointing her camera. There is a shot, a long one-shot where the caravan passes, leaving the frame and leaving the river's side in the foreground. Almost instantly, the caravan enters the same frame in the background of that shot, but a beautifully slow dissolve reveals the caravan isn't walking in a loop but has advanced into dry, rocky terrain.

Visually, it's very stunning. It's meant to seem circular, even though it's not. It could also be symbolic. The rest of the movie is walking after walking, and even though it's not, it could feel as if the group might as well be going in circles. There just seems to be an ever growing hopelessness. Yet, the group keeps going and the question is why and for how long.

At one point, a young child, a boy reads from the Bible and recites a passage about "the tree of life." With one single image, Reichardt shows us something that echoes the passage and offers what might be the eternal choice.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG for mild violent content, brief language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 43 mins.


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