The second most interesting thing that happens in Meek’s Cutoff.
Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Written by Jonathan Raymond
Warning: Mild spoilers ahead.
One review I read of Meek’s Cutoff called it an “anti-Western”, and that title is apt. Director Kelly Reichardt does approach the genre from a unique perspective. She shows the earliest journeys made by settlers to the American far West as they really were: really fucking tedious most of the time.
There’s a wagon train of eight people lost and thirsty in the Oregon desert. They think their guide—the asshole racist Stephen Meek—is responsible, either from negligence or malice. A lone Native American shows up and Meek captures him. They think the Native American might know how to find water, so they take him along. They get into an argument when one of their wagons crashes. Then they see a living tree. I guess that means they find water, but I don’t know because the movie ends before anything else happens. That’s not a synopsis, that’s literally every significant plot point in the whole thing.
If it sounds like that’s not enough content to drive a nearly two-hour movie, it’s because it isn’t. Minutia rules each day. There are countless flat, boring shots of people walking, people sitting, people looking into the distance, and people yawning (or maybe that was just me). At one point, a man fixes a wagon wheel; at another point, a woman kneads some dough; and at yet another point, a different man reads from the Bible a bit. There are roughly sixteen audible exchanges of dialogue in the movie that last longer than a second or two (I counted) and only a few of them are engaging in any way at all.
Movies like these force me to wonder whether the label of “minimalist” is merely a term used to cover up a lack of ideas. I’m not talking about the original Minimalists, as in the actual movement. (I don’t know anything about them.) What I mean is artists in general who spread meaningful information out so thin that it can only be made sense of retrospectively. The thing is, movies can avoid needless contrivances and embellishments and still be engaging, provocative, and powerful. I just call that efficiency. Trimming fat can free up runtime, but for the love of my sanity, fill that runtime with something, anything, that I can experience or contemplate. Or else, just make the runtime shorter. Don’t pad it out by making every lull a pregnant lull. Don’t turn me into a vegetable from your shallow artiness.
Meek’s Cutoff also goes for a minimally engaging visual presentation. While Westerns helped build the character of widescreen cinematography, Reichardt inexplicably opts for a 4:3 aspect ratio. It also appears to be shot at a faster frame rate than the film standard of 24p, and though it was indeed shot on film, the image is so washed that it might as well be raw miniDV footage. I’m being harsh here, but honestly it feels like a History Channel reenactment. There are a couple neat shots here and there, but by and large, it never justifies the reversion to 4:3, and generally it’s full of claustrophobic angles that elicit no sense of place nor frame anything in illuminating ways. This is a huge missed opportunity, too, since the movie could have been saved by better visuals.
If we’re meant to be following these desperate people through the desert, then let us experience the desert with them. Show the dust caking on their clothes. Show the desiccation of the landscape up close. Show us sun bleached bones. Show us anything. Add some ambiance. Add some contrast. Use the camera to make the desert itself a character. There’s a century’s worth of tools available to directors and DPs today, but no—Reichardt apparently thinks being a serious artist means settling almost exclusively on wide, flat, static shots, as if the conventions of cinematographic storytelling lack artistry. I’ve been to the desert, and it’s a vast, primal, mysterious, wretched, beautiful place. But you’d never get that impression from watching Meek’s Cutoff. You don’t get any impression at all except that it’s a boring place to be in, and you only get that impression because the movie itself is boring to look at. Again, minimalism oughtn’t mean lack of visual content—it oughta mean smartly terse use of visual content.
I’m hatin’ hard, but honestly, I don’t completely hate Meek’s Cutoff. Michelle Williams, as the ‘lead’, gives a fine performance, just as she did in Wendy and Lucy* (even if she only ever does a couple things). She carries her role as Nondescript Frontier Woman #2 with a good degree of subtlety, which is fortunate, considering she’s the only character you might call a protagonist (even though she completely lacks definition for the first 45 minutes of the movie). Rod Rondeaux, as the Cayuse Native American, is great as well—even if he is an enigma (or, because he is an enigma). Bruce Greenwood’s Meek is occasionally fun to listen to because he talks like a crazy fur trapper survivalist man, but he’s too one-note to care about. And it’s impossible to really experience the personalities of any other characters because they’re given too few lines.
What thinly developed story there is here isn’t actually too bad. There’s an inherent tension in the premise of people being led around by dubiously intentioned guides in a deadly environment, and a couple moments of decently effective drama do inevitably come about. Unfortunately, there’s no beginning nor end to that single narrative thread, so ultimately what you have is an awful looking, atonal, flavorless movie about a group of boring people on their way somewhere from somewhere else. I dunno if they got there, and I don’t care.
2 out of 5 salt porks.
*Wendy and Lucy is the feature Reichardt and Raymond helmed prior to Meek’s Cutoff. It’s another minimalist tale of lone desperation in foreign circumstances starring Michelle Williams, but it’s actually got a great story with great dialogue, and characterization, and things of meaning happen in it. It’s almost right up there with social realist classics like Loach’s Kes and De Sica’s Umberto D (from which it borrows general story elements and themes). Go watch that and not Meek’s Cutoff.
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