Meek’s Cutoff Review: The Mild Mild West

On General Release Friday 15th April

Whilst Philip French’s assertion that “there’s no such thing as a bad Western” should not be taken literally, it is nonetheless a powerful generalisation that aficionados of the genre will be hard pressed to disagree with. Of course, there are a multitude of immediately nameable sub-par examples but the genre almost uniquely weathers repetition better than most, able to riff endlessly on familiar settings, staple characters and recyclable scenarios.

It is inevitable Meek’s Cutoff will sharply divide opinion, lacking the presence of any decisive action let alone a fierce showdown at dawn or a token cavalry charge. However, it is the film’s very straying from convention that sets it apart and gives it its very own singular flavour. In fact, it is such a cerebral experience it will most likely challenge even the most ardent fan of the similarly meditative The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford.

Shot in an initially jarring 4:3 aspect ratio, the unusual shrinkage in screen size gradually contributes to the story’s claustrophobia; tightly framing three mid-19th century pioneer families trekking across the Oregon High Desert led by the grizzled Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a gravel toned cowboy given to telling tall stories who professes knowledge of a shortcut, a valuable asset when food and water are in short supply. Small figures pitched against vast landscapes, they’re are as fragile as the desert is arid, settlers driven by religious conviction and the allure of eternal riches.

A good part of the opening is spent in the company of the women as they collect water, tend to their children and prepare dinner for the camp, the men largely consigned to distant murmuring. The temporal space of the film follows a clear rhythmical pattern throughout these sequences, long marches throughout the day punctuated by prayer, cooking and bedding down for the night before the cycle repeats. When this harmony is suddenly disrupted by the entrance of an Indian’s (Rod Rondeaux) foot unannounced into shot, Emily’s (Michelle Williams) shock is matched by ours, the unexpected intrusion mirrored by the film’s visual split with its established order.

Perhaps the biggest ‘incident’ plot wise, it sets in motion a gripping atmosphere of intense paranoia, fed by several unanswerable questions; Is the Indian leaving signals behind for his tribe to rescue him? Is Meek to be trusted? Are they on a crash course to nowhere?

Admittedly, the pace of Meek’s Cutoff is not to everyone’s taste but given some perseverance and trust in director Kelly Reichardt, it is a startlingly original cinematic work which sports appropriately rugged cinematography, a tremendously eerie score and some brilliantly executed performances (Paul Dano impresses again and Michelle Williams continues an excellent recent run of form). An astonishing film that resembles few others, it should not be missed.