Meek’s Cutoff is a new Western from director Kelly Reichardt with themes aplenty. Using the square-like Academy ratio, the film is far from the elegiac West of John Ford or the panorama of Sergio Leone. Instead, it is harsh, unaccommodating and confined. However, does the film manage to be one of the few satisfying Westerns to come out since Unforgiven – the only other being, of course, The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford?
In 1845, a group of seven pioneers are being lead through the inhospitable plains of the Oregon High Desert. Leading them is Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a grizzled guide who is far from meek. As the caravan’s water supplies run low, confidence in Meek’s abilities begin to wane. The situation looks bleak and dangerous, especially when Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), one of the travellers, decides to put her faith behind a captured Indian (Rod Rondeaux), a decision that threatens to tear the caravan apart.
It is clear from the very first shot of Kelly Reichardt’s film that Meek’s Cutoff will be extremely slow, much like the first shot of Coppola’s Somewhere indicates that film’s own self-indulgence. The square-like framing refuses to allow the audience to sit back and contemplate the view, instead forcing them to look at the actions of the characters and decode their meaning. The film is full of potential themes whether political, feminist or revisionist-historical, and all seem to be handled with equal weight. In the end, the film can’t help but feel very unfocussed, with no single idea sustaining the film throughout. Either Meek is George W. Bush or the Indian is Barack Obama or the plight of the women is beyond their control due to the exclusivity of the male group or it is all about de-romanticising the pioneer Westerns of latter years. Or it could all be about faith and you may take from it what you wish. It all makes for interesting viewing, but you do wish that the director or writer Jonathan Raymond had more of an authorial intent.
As well as this, the film can be an odd mixture of exceedingly slow and not slow enough. Though far from the pacing of a typical Hollywood film, the film does contain some of the clichés of similar slow-paced films, such as a shot watching objects associated with the home receding into the distance as the pioneers travel further onwards. The shot ends too quickly to bring this across completely almost as if Reichardt grew tired of it herself.
However, the major stumbling block for most will probably be the ambiguous ending, which notes a conclusion to one of the film’s themes but few of the others. The ambiguity itself feels overdone and gives credence to the idea that American arthouse cinema can’t be subtle as successfully as its European counterparts (David Lynch is a case in point here). As well as this, the film tries too hard to be grizzled and authentic to the extent that it is often hard to see and hear. Despite these problems, Meek’s Cutoff does manage to be involving for the majority of its running time. It’s not a great film, but it’s a good attempt at one.