Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, and Paul Dano
MPAA: PG - For Some Mild Violent Content, Brief Language, and Smoking]
When you think of a Western, what normally crosses your mind? I'd imagine six-shooters, standoffs on high noon, mysterious men without names going on heroic quests, outlaws, horses riding off into the sunset, etc. So it should be a little surprising to know that Kelly Reichardt's latest film, Meek's Cutoff, has absolutely none of those. Instead, it's practically a cinematic adaptation of the Oregon Trail video game, vouching for a realistic depiction of covered-wagon pioneers of the mid-1800s.
It's actually more in line with a survival film than anything else, as a large group of people (One of which being Michelle Williams) travel across the endless prairies with little food or water and their entire lives packed up in their wagons. The plot is as simple as could be. Go from Point A to Point B without royally screwing up. And yet, Meek's Cutoff is one of the most engaging films of the year.
Michelle Williams and six-or-so more people are traveling across the endless prairies with a man named Meek (Bruce Greenwood) as their guide. It's been days, possibly even weeks, since finding any civilization and everyone is getting worried that perhaps Meek doesn't really know where he's going. Tensions escalate even further when they capture a Native American and begin to use him as their guide. Soon, everyone begins panicking even further, as they start thinking that perhaps their new Indian guide could be leading them into a trap. Paranoia starts to rise, their food and water are slowly dwindling, and tension between Michelle Williams and Meek begins peaking.
Meek's Cutoff is the kind of film that I wouldn't recommend to people who think of film as a mere pastime. To get full enjoyment--actually, that's the wrong word. To get the full experience of the film, you'll need to make a commitment to it, possibly by saving up to buy it expensive jewelry and fancy cars. If you even think about watching it in a noise room while your children/younger siblings are shouting in the background, or you stop halfway through the movie to get a sandwich and come back 20 minutes later, the effect is lost.
There are two main reasons for this.
Firstly, Meek's Cutoff, despite being a Western, rests solely on its atmosphere. No, not in the same sense as, say, The Shining, but a bit more along the lines of The Thin Red Line. For one thing, the movie looks positively gorgeous, making great use of the vast and empty wilderness that surrounds them and keeping up a consistent sense of loneliness and anxiety throughout the picture. Hell, when the movie was released in theaters, it was released in a 4:3 ratio. The letterboxes almost feel like they're literally imprisoning and closing in on the characters. Roger Deakins certainly would've been proud.
And on the other end of the spectrum, the use of sound does this even more effectively, with eerie and evocative violins humming away from a faraway place, bellowing our protagonists to find their way. It sets up a mood of slowly creeping dread that isn't necessarily like a horror movie, but certainly gives you chills as you're watching as you just know that something bad is about to happen.
The other reason you should fully immerse yourself into the film is because this movie is SLOW. To say that this movie is understated is an understatement in and of itself. There are many long periods of just watching everyone just walking across a valley with absolutely no dialogue at all. It's effective, but it'll test the patience not only of those who don't give in to the movie, but also those with short attention spans. If you thought The Road was slow, than this movie probably isn't for you.
Speaking of The Road, I can actually seeing this film translating itself from a Western into a post-apocalyptic film easily. It really does have that feel of an epic journey across a desolate wasteland as the survivors try to find the last-remaining sanctuary. Kelly Reichardt, however, probably saw that opportunity, seeing how done-to-death the apocalypse is in movies nowadays, and it must've been a risk making a period-piece, which has less appeal, at a low budget.
Reichardt is an underrated yet important cinematic voice in our generation. Her slow, muted, restrained style actually brings about stronger emotions than most movies can muster. Her previous film, Wendy and Lucy (also starring Michelle Williams) had almost no plot, but packed a heart-breaking punch of an ending. Also, it had a cute dog. Hearing that alone, you know that it's going to be sad.
She employs a strong sense of tension throughout the course of Meek's Cutoff that I really wasn't expecting. One sequence involving the group lowering their wagons down a steep hill is surprisingly intense and suspenseful, because there are real stakes involved. One slight, false step can render their entire lives, their whole journey, completely meaningless in a matter of seconds.
The characters are decidedly underwritten, which is both a good and bad thing, depending on your preference. You never get a clear backstory on any of them, which is effective because what matters isn't who these people were then, but who they are now, and how they change throughout the course of their journey. Sure, it makes it hard to care about the more minor characters of the film, but what makes it ultimately work is the performances...or to be more specific: the performance.
As per usual, Michelle Williams brings her natural rawness and power with her in every scene she's in. She's determined, she doesn't take shit from nobody, and she'll do whatever it takes to make sure everyone is safe. She gives us a reason to care about what happens to these people, and the film is better for it. As for the rest of the cast, Greenwood is pretty chilling as the titular Meek, Paul Dano has one line that hilariously reminded me of his role in There Will Be Blood, and everyone else was fine but forgettable.
The acting isn't what you go into the film for, though. And for what it is...
Final Verdict: Meek's Cutoff does something most films fail to do. It is really slow-paced and uneventful, yet it still captivates you thanks to a strong atmosphere, effective performances, and a surprising amount of tension with real stakes built into it. Not everyone's going to like it, but to those who fully immerse themselves into the film's ambiance will get a lot out of it.
That is all.
See ya next time. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to deliberately grow a beard that resembles the crazy-ass shit that grows out of Bruce Greenwood in this movie. Now THAT'S what you call a beard. Bye!