Meek’s Cutoff (2010) is a different kind of western. It’s in the family of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) and The Proposition (2005) art house westerns where people mumble and you only get a vague sense of what’s going on. But they’re beautiful, in a pre-tumbling tumbleweed sort of way. But there’s still the fact that these are art house and an art house is not built on plot. Most westerns are about basic tales that are limited by their setting to self-reliance and misery, and in that respect these are very western, but mainstream westerns make up for simplicity with simplistic resolutions. Gunplay. There isn’t much gunplay in these art house westerns, and when there is, it’s pretty gruesome and unsatisfying. Meek’s Cutoff bears the distinction of being the least violent western I’ve ever seen. For some, I imagine that is of great value. It’s a drama is basically what I’m saying.
Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is the nominal leader of a group of settlers making their way to an Oregon town to start a new life. Thomas Gately (Paul Dano) is bringing his young wife Millie (Zoe Kazan) to hunt beavers for trade. Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton) recently married Emily (Michelle Williams) after his first wife had died and is the wisest of the group. William White (Neal Huff) has a family with his son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson) and a pregnant wife, Glory (Shirley Henderson). Meek is the guide and he has led them far astray. He regales them with stories of his many adventures and never acknowledges his ignorance. When things become very desperate, they come across and capture an Indian (Rod Rondeaux). Meek is for killing him immediately, citing the ruthlessness of the local tribes, but Solomon sees that the Indian must know where they might find water. Thus, the Indian becomes the guide, but to where they know not.
The film, written by Jonathan Raymond directed by Kelly Reichardt, is told from the perspective of the women and children. They stand, tending to the oxen, and watch the men’s many consultations, catching only bits and pieces. I really like this device. They’re an audience like we are and it emphasizes our sympathies with characters that are usually functionaries in these kinds of stories. It strikes me as a very good way to tell the story as honestly as possible. Gender politics is not the source of drama, that’s the desert and following people without knowing where they’re leading. Meek’s Cutoff takes the show-don’t-tell mantra all the way. When you sit down to a movie and the first ten minutes feel like a lecture on the history of whatever the movie happens to be about, it’s gratifying to sit and wait for events to transpire.
If there’s one thing I am slightly disappointed by it’s that the ending is excruciatingly vague, as you might expect from something as indie as this. As that final shot begins, you know what’s happening. Ten seconds in you say, “No, no, don’t do it, give us something, SOMETHING!” But you might as well yell at the rocks. At least give us a spinning top, a glimpse into what might be, instead of leaving it to every person to speculate on how a fictional story ends, which may be the dumbest occupation known to man. I think he’s crazy, for what it’s worth.
With the slim plotting, it’s the look (Christopher Blauvelt) and sound (Jeff Grace) that will have to satiate you. There’s plenty to drink in. I saw the movie on DVD, but I imagine the Blu-Ray would make these gorgeous skies and harsh landscapes even more appealing. On the downside, their drive for realism leads them to scenes that are so dark that it is impossible to really tell what’s going on. Moody silhouettes are one thing, but near-pitch darkness with dull light lines and no dialogue, that’s just too hard to take. You’re basically listening to crickets.
Speaking of realism, I really liked the performances in this movie. When Meek is introduced, it’s a little strange. Bruce Greenwood is almost always a perfectly sculpted, ruggedly handsome man of power. We first see him groggily crawling out of his tent, full matted hair and beard, looking like he had a really rough night. It’s pretty comic. That goes away pretty quickly as he plays the more-hat-than-cattle angle to the hilt. Even Paul Dano, who I rarely ever like, didn’t try to win any awards and just stuck the performance. But it’s Will Patton and Michelle Williams that own the movie. Great characters and pitch-perfect performances.
I looked for the newest edition of Oregon Trail, but I think my computer has put the Trail well behind.