Thursday, 16 June 2011
Set in 1845, Meek’s Cutoff follows a group of three young families travelling along the Oregon Trail to seek a better life in the richer pastures of the Willamette Valley. Having split from a larger group on the advice of the titular Steven Meek (Bruce Greenwood), the party are facing an unenviable trek with the threat of ambush from Native American hunting parties. Will they make their destination before their water runs dry?
Meek himself is an obnoxious and objectionable character. His narrow eyes peer out from behind a beard which completely obscures his face – but which never prevents him running his mouth. Despite being utterly lost, Meek is unwilling to admit fault and attempts to bluster his way through proceedings via sheer bravado and bullshit. He’s utterly transparent and everyone knows it.
A stunning (and bravely silent) opening scene begins with the three female characters carefully and deliberately crossing a river. Each holds items above their heads to keep them from getting wet, making it immediately apparent that the women here are workers - and strong with it. As the narrative progresses they’ll grow stronger still. This changing dynamic is best embodied by Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), who seems to draw strength directly from the weakening Meek as she grows increasingly intolerant of his faux-wisdom and ill-deserved authority. Her undermining of their supposed ‘leader’ is based largely in her caring attitude towards a Native American captured by the party – a show stealing performance from the charismatic Rod Rondeaux.
Williams gives an excellent performance, as do all the cast. It’s a story with relatively few words, so the spare dialogue is imbued with layers of meaning and requires a strong yet subtle delivery. For the most part this happens, but occasionally muffled diction or background noise obscures some vital dialogue. It’s a shame but it matters little - the real star of Meek’s Cutoff is the amazing scenery.
The cinematography is absolutely stunning. Director Kelly Reichardt is not shy of letting the pictures tell the story – and why would you be when they’re as stunning as these? Most scenes are punctuated by beautiful vistas, warm sunsets and long distance shots of the wagons making their way from east to west. The shots linger without ever outstaying their welcome, making clear both the magnitude of the task in hand and the scale of the country in which the characters are lost.
Despite the relative lack of dialogue, the dearth of action and the slow pace of the piece, it’s a movie which remains gripping throughout. Sadly, the ‘cutoff’ of the title is take rather too literally in a rather abrupt ending. But it’s the only shock to the system in an elegant film. And in a film which concerns itself with the journey it’s fitting that the destination is not all that important.