AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2010
By Dave Campbell | October 27, 2010
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writer: Jonathan Raymond
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux
Meek’s Cutoff follows the path of three families in 1845 on the dusty Oregon Trail who have made arrangements with a grisly guide by the name of Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to take them and their covered wagons through the Cascade Mountains. Meek, a man of heavy self proclamation, has ignorantly lead his clients astray on a seemingly endless journey that begins to wear on his followers who start to question his abilities and judgment.
After days of broken promises from Meek, and after capturing a lone curious Native American man (Rod Rondeaux), Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) rises up to lead the rest of the party in following the guidance of the Native American who could take them out of the arid valleys to water. The rest of the party (Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson) are faced with the dilemma of believing Meek’s fear based tales of the Native’s “savage tribe” waiting to kill them over the next ridge, or trust in Emily’s faith in humanity to take them to safety.
This is a film that stays with you days after. It’s a thought provoking journey of human nature and mankind’s social evolution. The structure of our own modern design is put to the test as peoples from two different worlds, on the very same planet struggle with how each of them define what is valuable. On one side of the spectrum we have a small wagon community of immigrants hailing from European shores who have come out west to the “new world’ to stake a claim on the new dream that is America. On the other side, is a lone and seemingly simple Native-American man who lives by-and-from the very land that has birthed his people for centuries.
The vast political symbolism to Meek’s Cutoff is quite overwhelming once it is able to all seep in. Director Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy & Lucy) masterfully says a lot in a film that is short on dialogue. Instead of the film relying on the spoken word, Reichardt calls on visual queues and reactions from the extremely talented cast to convey the bulk of the story telling. Though it is faint more often than bold, this way of capturing the themes and growth of the characters broadens the film’s purpose in an incredible way.
Meek’s Cutoff is artisan film-making that challenges the analytical radius of the viewer. This isn’t a film for the “Captain Obvious” movie-goer that needs everything spelled out for them and who relies on the superficial for entertainment. With the absence of a traditional climax and with the low volume of dialog and action, the viewer is placed in the minimal shoes of the very characters we are here to connect with. Meek’s Cutoff is a perfect example of film-making that seems very minimal on the surface. The script “arguably” only has the bare essentials, the setting is baron, the tone is dreary and the 4:3 framing closes the audience in on these lacking elements. But wait…once we scratch the one-dimensional surface, the profoundness of Meek’s Cutoff erupts from brilliant subtlety and deep symbolism buried below.