Meek’s Cutoff

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The Oregon Trail conjures a sense of nostalgia for a generation that has never even came close to experiencing anything like it. But thanks to the floppy disc video game from the 80s, fording a river and catching malaria feel like the good ole days. Coupled with myths of cannibalistic groups and old movies, we recognize the dangers of the trek, but its never felt quite as real as in Kelly Reichardt’s lastest, Meek’s Cutoff.

I think a great word to describe Meek’s Cutoff is “subtle.” Nothing is directly explained to the audience, and that is a true wonder in today’s cinema. We come to know who characters are through their present-tense actions — there is never any dialogue or back story to tell us who they are or were. Even though there are some recognizable actors in the film (Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Will Patton and Bruce Greenwood — who is dressed up to be unrecognizable), none of the actors are given any star screen time.

Another subtlety of the film is its method of storytelling. The film opens right in the middle of the “action”, and like the character development there is no back-story or opening narration to let us all in to the proceedings. It then goes nearly fifteen minutes without any dialogue or character building, simply landscape shots of the environment as our group of travelers slowly walk along beside their covered wagons. When we finally do have some dialogue and character interaction, it’s as sparse the desert and many of the conversations are presented from afar and muttered under breath. In this way, the camera works as both a surveyor of the scenery and outpost, watching from a distance. Although there is little plot to the film, the story unfolds naturally and there is a clear motivation for the characters through much of the film.

Meek’s Cutoff may be viewed as boring by many, but it’s a film that is easy to get lost in. Much like a trek across the western desert or the great plans must have felt, time runs together and you can’t quite tell if you’ve seen five minutes or an hour of the film. Although the opening sets its ultra-slow pace, once you get settled in, the film is infinitely engaging. At one point I looked at my watch, thinking we were about an hour into the film, to realize that it had about ten minutes left. The film’s pace and lack of arching storyline work incredibly well to capture the characters, their journey and their plight. A film from earlier this year, Peter Weir’s The Way Back, has a similar story line where a group of men go on a treacherous journey over thousands of miles, but with its episodic storyline, it never comes as close to Meek’s Cutoff in letting the viewer experience the conditions as they must have truly been.

Meek’s Cutoff is a challenging film that requires an attentive and cooperative viewer to put the bits and pieces of the film together to map out the full story. If you aren’t up for the challenge, don’t bother, but those who do will be greatly rewarded by this beautiful and satisfying art.

tags: Kelly Reichardt, michelle williams, paul dano

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