Meek’s Cutoff moves at a very slow pace. Given that the last three films I’d watched before it were Blade, Avengers: Endgame and Aquaman, which were all good (or, in the case of Endgame, great) in their own ways, I was in sore need of something slower and more meditative. The film makes great use of silence. No one speaks for the first seven minutes of the film, and then it is a child reading scriptures almost in place of the absent soundtrack as work goes on around him in the camp. That length of time is no record to be sure, but it did give me space to adapt to the film’s approach. I definitely thought of the work of Willa Cather several times while I watched it, not least because of this silence. Despite the slow approach, the film does a remarkable job of creating tension as the situation of the characters becomes more dire.
Most westerns are at least in part commenting on the myth of the west, and this is no exception. There is little to no romance in its outlook toward either what the west represents, or the violence that most western films traffic in. I’m not sure how many other westerns I’ve seen in which no one is shot. Like many of its revisionist counterparts it feels sweaty and grimy. The people in the tiny wagon train clearly do not belong in the desert. They stand out against the empty skyline.
The film doesn’t make any heavy handed statements about European Americans encroaching on land that isn’t theirs, but it does certainly illustrate how much these particular pioneers don’t belong. Like The Witch, my favorite movie of 2015, the film uses this lack of belonging to several different ends. Among other things, both films illustrate how difficult the depicted times were to live in for anyone, but then go on to show how it was especially hard for women. That both films do this without feeling in the least preachy is a testament to both filmmakers’ skill.
Early on, the wagon train's guide, Mr. Meeks himself, is revealed to be an opportunistic blowhard who lied about knowing the way to their intended destination. When a mostly silent Native American shows up, he is taken prisoner. He largely serves to reveal the foolishness and prejudices of the white people in the caravan and how completely out of their depth they are. They ultimately decide to keep him around to help them find water, and much of the film’s action stems from the various responses to him, nearly all negative, from the others. I’m not entirely sure what to make of his character. There’s a lot of ambiguity built into the film, especially around him and the ending, which I won’t spoil.
The acting is uniformly good. Everyone is well fitted to their characters. I can see why the Coens thought to cast Zoe Kazan in The Gal Who Got Spooked.
This the first Kelly Reichardt film I’ve seen, but I’ll watch a couple more at least. If this is representative, then I’m likely to be a fan.
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