Meek’s Cutoff ****
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt.
Written By: Jonathan Raymond.
Meek’s Cutoff is a daring movie for several reasons. For one thing, audiences raised on Westerns have certain expectations of a wagon train movie like this (see John Ford aptly titled Wagon Master for an example), and Reichardt provides none of those things in her movie. She makes the interesting choice to shoot in 1.33:1, instead of the typical widescreen that you would normally use for a movie that provides this many opportunities for sweeping vistas shots – opportunities that Reichardt does not use. She keeps her camera squarely on the people in her film – eliminating their past and their future, concentrating solely on their present predicament, The guide is supposed to be some kind of hero, but Greenwood’s Meek is anything but. He has wild hair, a crazy beard, and strange eyes, and really he leads them all out to the middle of the desert with no exit strategy (prompting many to see the film as an allegory for the current War in Iraq, which is certainly a valid interpretation). The women are supposed to be weak and subservient, but Michelle Williams’ character is really the strongest of them all. She controls her husband (Will Patton), who controls the rest of the group – including the weak willed Thomas (Paul Dano), and the overly religious William (Neil Huff), who refuses to eat to the point of starvation.
This is a movie where the subtlest moments are the most important. To the unobservatant, it may look like “nothing happens” in Meek’s Cutoff, but that ignores the quiet moments where the entire movie dynamic changes. It takes skill in the performance to pull this off – and Michelle Williams proves once again why she is one of the best actresses of her generation, as she is able to be the moral center of the film, without upstaging the rest of them. But everyone has their moments – even the largely quiet Rod Rondeaux as the Cayuse Indian, who cannot communicate with the others on the journey, but still observes so much. The cinematography for the film is wonderful, and brings out these subtle moments, and has a wonderful dusty, dirty feel to it, that reminded me of the 1970s work on Terence Malick (even if Malick preferred widescreen). Meek’s Cutoff is a subtle film, but one that builds tremendous emotional power as it goes along. Nothing happens? Only if you’re not paying attention.