Judge William Lee's failed fashion line was geek's cutoffs.
"We're not lost. We're finding our way."—Stephen Meek
An unconventional western from Kelly Reichardt, director of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, is well worth the time spent but some viewers may be frustrated by its slow pace and alienating style. Understandably so, but this bold unique film stays on your mind.
Facts of the Case
Three families, all their worldly possessions carried in wagons pulled by oxen, trek along the Oregon Trail in 1845. Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, Dinner for Schmucks), their hired guide, told them he knew a shortcut that would take them to a "second Eden" in two weeks time. That was five weeks ago. Lost on the high plain desert, the emigrants grow increasingly weary as their food, water, and optimism deplete. When the travelers encounter a Native American, they're faced with a critical decision: Do they put their trust in Meek, who has led them wandering endlessly, or in the primitive-looking man they have long feared?
Director Kelly Reichardt and writer Jonathan Raymond have deliberately set out to upset our expectations of the western movie. The result is something that lingers in the mind more so than another six-shooter showdown. There are guns in this movie but when it's time to use them, as when one panicked character shoots a rifle, Reichardt shows the ungraceful and laborious effort involved in using the technology. Meek's Cutoff eschews the romanticism of the Old West for a more psychological consideration of the settlers' experience. This is the ordeal of people overwhelmed by the landscape and doubtful of the path on which they've chosen.
An unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood plays the braggart Meek. His guiding skills don't instill confidence, but he relishes any chance to talk about his days killing Indians. Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine) is a quiet woman and devoted wife to Solomon (Will Patton, The Fourth Kind), but she's had enough of Meek's ego. Williams shines in an understated performance, as the resilient woman who eventually takes charge of the situation. The rest of the cast is fine, but they're merely filling types in this motley group of travelers. The wagon train members include a mother (Shirley Henderson, Life During Wartime), a paranoid woman (Zoe Kazan, It's Complicated), and a quick-to-judge young man (Paul Dano, Knight and Day).
The looped footage used on the disc's menu screen perfectly encapsulates the mood of the movie. It's a shot of the caravan passing the camera followed by a very slow cross-dissolve to a wide shot of the wagons in the distance and then repeated. That transition between the two shots is one of the most memorable moments in the movie but its use on the menu screen is also effective. If you let the looped footage play on and on, it's like the travelers are stuck in a perpetual journey. That realization, slowly dawning on the characters and the audience over the course of the movie, is nicely summed up before you press play.
It is possible to interpret the movie as an allegory. There are Biblical references and specific quotes around being cast out of the Garden of Eden. The emigrants have put their faith in Meek, but perhaps he's led the flock astray. While there isn't concrete evidence that this story is intended as a religious parable, its suggestion of a deeper layer of spirituality truly enriches the movie.
The beautiful cinematography by Chris Blauvelt is very well reproduced on this Blu-ray Disc's 1080p/AVC transfer. In another move to break with the traditional style of westerns, Meek's Cutoff is shot in 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The nearly square picture initially looks a bit odd on 16:9 HD monitors but your attention will quickly turn to the uncompromised gorgeous visuals. The sharpness is striking but natural. Colors are likewise strong without unduly popping. Blacks are deep and it makes the overall contrast quite satisfying but nighttime scenes are rendered very dark with almost no detail retained in the shadows. The editing preserves the typically long takes with minimal camera movement, so there is plenty of time to drink in Blauvelt's assured compositions. His lens showcases the landscape to great effect and the picture quality of the disc preserves every strand of grass. The movie looks so natural yet so surreal that it's often mesmerizing.
Meek's Cutoff is a quiet movie, most of the time. Sometimes, the director makes an effort to keep the viewer at a distance from the action—or to keep the viewer's perspective among the women. When the men have a talk among themselves, they're filmed at a distance and their words are similarly at the edge of audibility. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix has a wide range, from the thunderous crashing of a wagon to the barely heard conversation happening over yonder, so you may want to keep a finger on the volume control. Some of the characters tend to mumble their lines and I found it especially hard to understand Meek's dialogue at least half of the time (hard to say if that was deliberate on the part of the filmmakers). Also included is a PCM 2.0 stereo mix that puts the audio slightly stronger and frontal. The two-channel option also makes at least one directional sound miscue quite distracting.
There are two extras here. Nine minutes of behind the scenes footage of the crew at work on location is somewhat interesting, but there is no narration or host to explain what's happening. The trailer is also on the disc. Richard Hell contributes a short essay on the movie—addressing the 1.37:1 picture ratio, among other things—printed on one panel of the foldout paper box that holds the discs. Distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories makes some fine paper boxes for their discs. Pencil drawings of the characters adorn the four panels of this one. The DVD copy included in this set contains the movie and the same extras.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Meek's Cutoff requires some patience. It is slow, quiet, and doesn't work too hard to capture the wandering attention of a general audience. The pacing is not unlike another thoughtful and deliberately different western, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It also asks viewers to reach a conclusion, or not, about the characters, which reminds me of John Sayles's Limbo. If those movies gave you grief, you won't find solace in this one either. Reichardt's movie is almost repellant at times, so don't expect to like it without some work.
Meek's Cutoff dares to be different. It's a western stripped of heroics so that frustration and desperation are exposed. It's set in an awesome environment that offers no comfort, only the threat of continual hardship or starvation. The movie offers many rewards, not the least of which is the excellent and striking photography. Some journeys are an act of faith, but you can trust Reichardt to lead you on this one.
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