Directed by Kelly Reichardt and written by Jonathan Raymond, four-time collaborators, having also worked together on Wendy and Lucy, Night Moves and Reichardt’s latest critical success, First Cow. During the 1840s, six settlers are caught in a dangerous situation, running out of food and water, meanwhile, their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), refuses to acknowledge that they may be lost. When a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) is captured, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), one of the settlers, shields him from Meek’s wrath, and he offers to lead the group to water in return. Also starring: Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff and Tommy Nelson.
The first thing to note about Meek’s Cutoff is that this is not a film for those that need things to be wrapped up nice and neatly, this is not a story about getting from point A to B, it’s about the journey in-between. In her 25-year career so far Reichardt has established herself as a master of the intimate drama and this is no exception, it may be set in wide open spaces but there’s nowhere to escape the growing troubles of this small group. Upon opening, the camera moves in such a way that it takes in more of the landscape than it does of the characters, never landing directly on their faces, it’s a brilliant way to set up their situation and establish them as a group, rather than diving right into their individual personalities. Those fantastic shots also do a lot to emphasise the sense of being lost, being removed from the world, beautiful to look at but such sprawling space, with no end is sight almost feels like a death sentence.
That initial example of how Reichardt distinctly chooses particular shots and their duration to emphasise the themes of the film is consistent throughout, there’s no lingering shot which doesn’t have meaning behind it, rather than simply hitting the visual. It’s a masterful style that works perfectly with the story that’s being told, it allows the growing desperation and fear to seep into every aspect. It means that as events move forward, their increasing doubt and resentment of Meek’s guidance can come through subtly, it’s not a snap change or argument. The film undoubtedly gives most focus to Williams and Greenwood, the former being the sympathetic and logical focal point for the film and the latter being a mysterious and dubious character that leaves things vague enough to not get a handle on whether he’s incompetent, unpredictable or simply aloof. Williams’ performance is yet another example of how she excels in the indie environment, major studio films have a pattern of not appreciating her talent, particularly with Venom and The Greatest Showman, her calibre of acting was worth much more than they had to offer. She’s shown a number of different skills over the years, her more recent turn of Avery in I Feel Pretty may have been the only redeeming factor the film had to offer, it was the complete opposite of her most known work but her highlights are always when she can get her teeth into drama, and she definitely does with this film. It’s a performance that’s very much under the surface, she keeps a cool head despite her body language making clear her opinions, while it’s certainly an ensemble film as a whole, her moments onscreen are compelling enough to consistently draw focus.
The support performances from Kazan, Henderson and Dano add a lot to the film, each of them has something different to offer but particularly Kazan who starts out fairly quiet then falls into a downward spiral that’s almost painful to watch. Dano provides a youthful optimism and loyalty, while Henderson hits all the classic matriarch notes, a strident woman who knows best but knows her place. The cast together provide a brilliant ensemble, there’s not a lull in sight, they keep things interesting throughout its entirety. Rondeaux’s performance also stands out, we’re rarely made aware what he is actually saying but he provides such a stoic, strong presence that his tone provides the context that you need.
The film is a study of human behaviour in a stressful environment, each person being a different example of how someone might handle it, while some begin to take leave of their senses, others refuse to stray from the path and keep their eyes on the prize. There are a few key events in its 104-minutes but for the most part its simply their day to day journey through the desert, and yet it’s entirely captivating because you can feel the amount of emotions and difficulties that each character is going through, while little may physically happen, you can see everything going on beneath the surface. It’s shot beautifully, taking full of advantage of all the natural splendour that the location has to offer and never does a shot feel wasteful, it’s constantly making perfect use of the space. There’s also the great choice to keep things feeling faithful to the era, night scenes are shot as they should be with minimal lighting, it adds to the atmosphere and refrains from feeling forced or insincere.
Meek’s Cutoff is intimately crafted, full of intensity, understated drama and top notch performances. It’s a great example of how modern westerns can respect the old style of the genre while bringing something more fresh to the table. Reichardt shows a great deal of skill with this film and its seamless visual and story proves that her frequent collaborators of Raymond and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, is a team especially worth keeping together. It’s not a film that will appeal to those with little patience or a need to see the entire story resolved perfectly but for those who can give it the time and the benefit of the doubt, it’s incredibly worth watching.
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