Film Review: “Meek’s Cutoff”

by Jason LeRoy on May 6, 2011

Michelle Williams in MEEK'S CUTOFF

starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson, Paul Dano, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux

written by: Jonathan Raymond

directed by: Kelly Reichardt

MPAA: Rated PG for some mild violent content, brief language and smoking.

Meek’s Cutoff is a quietly divisive little film in which very little happens, taunting the audience by ending just before it seems like something finally will. It tests the patience of all but the most committed fans of director Kelly Reichardt, who directed the similarly minimalist films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. But in its own humbly spellbinding way, it is a success.

The premise is simple: the year is 1845, and Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) has been contracted to lead three married couples, Solomon and Emily (Will Patton and Michelle Williams), Thomas and Millie (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan), and William and pregnant Glory (Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson), who have a young son, Jimmy (Tommy Nelson), through the Oregon desert to find land for settling. Meek has an oversized personality and a showman’s approach to his work, but is perhaps exaggerating his knowledge of the terrain.

They creep along in their covered wagon caravan, trying to preserve their food and water supply as the journey stretches on longer and longer. Gradually, their trust in Meek begins to wane, and they can no longer ignore the suspicion that they are lost. Tensions rise further when they fearfully encounter a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) and take him captive, assuming he would kill them if set free. But Emily begins to sense that perhaps “the Indian” will be more helpful in their journey than their guide, which Meek finds threatening.

Meek’s Cutoff is meticulous and visually striking, with cinematographer Chris Blauvelt finding the rugged beauty in the characters’ merciless surroundings. And the performances are uniformly excellent, with Williams in particular turning in yet another exquisitely observed turn. The film lulls the audience into a state of contemplative meditation while simultaneously jangling our nerves about the many horrible ways things could suddenly go awry.

But ultimately, very few do. This is the kind of movie that first frustrates you with its lack of story, big events, or resolution, and then frustrates you further because you realize maybe you need those things more than you should. Or maybe that’s just me. If the old maxim, “It’s the journey, not the destination,” is true, then Meek’s Cutoff is a masterpiece.

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