MEEK'S CUTOFF, 2011
Stars: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Neal Huff
Settlers traveling through the Oregon desert in 1845 find themselves stranded in harsh conditions.
Critics whine and complain all the time (myself included) about the naked artificiality of most film drama and how unlikely and unreal many of the characters and situations are. It's easy to forget there are good reasons for this, top of the list being that real life is dull and repetitive and fiction is our attempt to escape from that. Nevertheless every so often a writer or filmmaker will rebel against the tried and true and try to create drama out of the ordinary and in the process either proves critic's grumbling true or reminds us why we don't really want to do things that way.
"Meek's Cutoff" doesn't really hit either of those extreme's, not least of which is that for all of its surface pretensions at being cinema verite, it's not. Kelly Reichardt's film follows a small cast of half a dozen pioneers traveling across mid-19th century Oregon, looking for the Pacific Ocean and their promised homesteads. The titular Meek is their guide (Bruce Greenwood), a caustic, bragging man who claims his personal cutoff from the well-worn Oregon Trail will save the travelers several days hard journey. Instead all he manages is to get them lost in a harsh land will dwindling supplies of water and hope.
It sounds like a set up for a decent piece of modern melodrama, of close knit comrades slowly coming apart under great pressure. In Reichardt's hands it's more like an Ozu drama, with everything important being left unsaid and character built out of silences. In her classic piece of man versus nature, naturalism is the key word and idea behind everything.
Cinematographer Chris Blauvelt has taken that idea to its most extreme and obvious form, using only natural light to strike his images. The result isn't so much John Alcott Caravaggio paintings as it is a literal play of light and darkness, shifting from the harsh, overblown highlights of the day, to nighttime darks so pitch it is often hard to make out the forms of the actors. Instead only their voices hold sway which is particularly unique as the film's sound is as sparse as its visuals. In fact, except for Meek himself (who never shuts about his own exploits) few in the company have anything to say.
Instead, "Cutoff's" formidable cast—the main element separating it from being a more run of the mill piece of independent filmmaking—are left to react and react and react and keep as much as they can on the inside. For the most part they are up to it, particularly Patton and Williams who have the most complex relationships to convey. Only Greenwood, sporting copious fake facial hair, is at a disadvantage which might explain why he is so verbose.
Unfortunately the try at naturalism hurts the film more than it helps it. Mixing cinema verite with period filmmaking is a difficult thing to pull off as one impulse naturally moves against the other. Reichardt's choice, though meant to convey they isolated nature of the character's predicament, also distances their viewer from the drama for so long that when it does finally occur it is almost a surprise.
After roaming through the Oregon wilderness for some time and slowly losing hope, the would-be settlers come across a wounded Indian (Ron Rondeaux) who they are convinced can lead them to water despite not being able to communicate with him at all. As time passes and they become more desperate, natural urges of paranoia and xenophobia begin to emerge and it is only a matter of time before weapons are drawn.It all happens so slowly, despite being less than two hours with credits, that by the time the drama drama finally emerges your casual viewer will have lost interest. This doesn't mean there is no merit to Reichardt's choices; art thrives on experimentation after all. It only means not every experiment is successful and reminds us that originality doesn't always mean good. And while "Meek's Cutoff" is undeniably a good film, the price it has paid for that is to make itself so difficult to watch you have to wonder if the goal is worth the cost.
This is just a long way of saying critics are impossible to please. So ignore all that, turn off your expectations, and give "Meek's Cutoff" a chance, for a group of excellent performances if nothing else.