Meek’s Cutoff

12 Jun

Title: Meek’s Cutoff
Year: 
2011
Director: 
Kelly Reichardt
Writer: Jonathan Raymond
Starring: 
Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Tommy Nelson, Will Patton
MPAA Rating: 
PG, mild violent content, brief language and smoking
Runtime: 
104 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
7.3
Rotten Tomatoes: 
85%

I’m a big big fan of director Kelly Reichardt. Her debut film, River of Glass, is pretty excellent. 2006’s Old Joy, starring musician Will Oldham, is absolutely incredible and I have it ranked as my 28th favorite film of that year. And then there’s 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, which saw her working with Michelle Williams and which I have ranked as my 24th favorite film of that year, that film is pretty spectacular on so many levels. So yeah, when you are a director that has a style that’s so personal and minimalistic, one that resonates a lot with my tastes, and you see her track record being as impeccable as Ms. Reichardt’s is, then you can sure as hell be impressed.

And then there’s the matter of Michelle Williams. If I had to name my five favorite living actresses, I wouldn’t hesitate to put her name in the conversation, next to Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett and Diane Keaton. I seriously love her, and every performance she gives I find to be pretty much perfect. Hell, even her breakout turn as Jen Lindley on TV’s Dawson’s Creek was seriously well acted, and her film work since, in films like The Station Agent, Brokeback Mountain, Wendy and Lucy, Synecdoche, New York and, especially, last year’s sublime Blue Valentine, has been a thing of beauty, a really thrilling journey to witness from film to film, the maturation of an actress, a woman who’s barely over thirty and yet I still have no doubt in my mind to proclaim her as one of the greatest, I just love her.

So, you see, if I liked Ms. Reichardt’s previous collaboration with Ms. Williams, you can be sure as hell about me being insanely excited for this one. And they didn’t disappoint, Meek’s Cutoff is another stellar addition to Ms. Reichardt’s body of work, and yet another spectacular performance from Ms. Williams, who you can tell is bound to get an Oscar sooner rather than later, she’s just delivering like crazy every single role she gets. I guess you could call this film a neo-western, and it’s a very unique take on that genre, because it’s probably the most slowly-paced western I’ve seen, focussing a lot on the day-to-day workings of just traveling from one place to another by foot, with wagons and oxen next to you for weeks at a time. And I think it’s tremendous how Ms. Reichardt never gives us a really huge event to take away from that monotony, instead just allowing us to immerse ourselves into this lonely and arduous journey.

Bruce Greenwood is the actor in charge of playing the title character, Stephen Meek, and the cutoff referred to in the title is this other route Meek was taking a group of settlers through instead of going through the main trail where Indian attacks were rumored to be happening. This is actually all based on a true story, but the film isn’t about a historical event, it’s just about what went on through the minds of these few people going on such a hugely demanding journey following a man who was extremely hard-headed in his views and opinions, even when it turned out he was totally wrong and had no idea of what he was doing.

And it’s all very hard-hatting stuff that these settlers have to go through after it becomes clearer and clearer that Meek didn’t really know this new path as well as he thought he did, and you really get the sense of just how hard an odyssey it might have been, fearing to run out of water, having to leave things behind just so that your burden might lessen, and this isn’t all done to create some sort of huge scene of desperation, but to allow Ms. Reichardt to do what she does best, to create her very minimalistic outlook at the psyches of her characters, not to show the desperation itself, but to show what the desperation does, it’s just seriously well done.

A member of this group of settlers is Emily Tetherow, the character played by the incomparable Ms. Williams. And she’s just pitch perfect for this role, and it’s terrific that Ms. Reichardt has her to work with here, because another thing that really sets Meek’s Cutoff from other westerns is that it focuses a lot on the women in this group of settlers, and Ms. Williams is front and center, delivering a performance that’s will most likely end up in my Top 5 given by a female lead actress this year, one of incredible restraint, saying so much just with her eyes that it’s stunning to watch. And it’s Emily who confronts Meek, who blames him for not admitting he didn’t knew where he was going, and the scenes between the two are really something to behold.

There is an indian watching them, you see, and we are to assume that he’s doing just that to guide an indian attack to their location. And even the portrayal of the indian is unlike what you see in your regular westerns, he’s not that fierce warrior dressed in a particular way, he’s an observing man, a mysterious figure throughout. And the settlers eventually catch him, and there’s a discussion about whether they should just kill him so that he can’t kill them while they sleep, which is what Meek proposes, or to try and get him to tell them which way to go to get water, which is what Emily proposes. And it’s all sensationally well told, with a huge sense of slow-burning tension through the story, with a slow paced designed to really show us the grim realities of the time.

This is just truly a spectacular film, shot in a screen ratio we haven’t seen for decades, but that was the one used in most of the great western classics, which only adds to its faithful look. Yes, the pacing may be slow, but the film is all the more perfect for that, because that way we really get to feel how long and hard their journey was, and it’s just such an impressively immersive film that you have to give all the props in the world to Ms. Reichardt, who gives a masterclass in how to handle this material, and to Ms. Williams, who between this one and the upcoming Take This Waltz and My Week with Marilyn is bound to have another terrific year, and we’re all very lucky because of that.

Grade: A-

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