The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Meek's Cutoff

Written by John Bleasdale.

Photo from the article The original inspiration for Kelly Reichardt’s new western was contemporary politics. The idea of a nascent America being led astray by a maverick cowboy of questionable qualifications had an immediate resonance with the Bush years (“it’s not that he’s lost; it’s that he doesn’t admit that he’s lost” one character says of Meek), but it is unlikely that this analogy will seem as obvious in the wake of Obama’s first term and the dramatic changes in the U.S. political climate. What we are left with, however, is a challenging piece of film, which is genuinely radical in its commitment to showing something true to its period.

This is a film that seems almost to want to lose the generic framework of the Western altogether. Watching the trailer, you will hear gun shots, see someone being kicked in the head and even witness a Mexican stand off of sorts; in other words a conventional Western, characterised by a series of violent confrontations, and the poster featuring Michelle Williams holding a gun likewise forefronts violence, reducing the nuanced taking of a female point of view down to the figure of the kick-ass woman. However, the film itself more deliberately eschews the genre and its markers.


The cowboy Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is not the film’s hero, but an initially inscrutable, ultimately untrustworthy fraud. The violence is petty and cowardly, driven by basic fear rather than the righting of wrongs, or any other system of frontier justice. The whole plot not only avoids the classical Western convention of the über-free, ready-handed maverick with a capacity for effective violence who paves the way for civilization (then, once the gun smoke clears, preferably skedaddles) - which is the plot line for such cornerstones of the genre as Shane (1953) and The Searchers (1956), as well as a good many lesser Westerns - but rather shows up the dangers of trusting such marginal, possibly psychotic figures, and such wildly romantic notions. Life, for Reichardt, is not solved by quick-draws and cutoffs. The cutoff, in other words the short-cut, can be a deadly grab beyond our reach, and the maverick, far from protecting families, women and children, is perhaps driving them into extreme privation and danger in pursuit of his own harebrained, self-perpetuating legend.

The film feels like a period piece set coincidentally in the same time and geographical location as many Westerns, but in a way that has much more interest in evoking life lived then, rather than repeatedly playing out the same myths legends. The soundtrack of the film is dominated by the creaking and groaning of wagons, the clip-clop of the oxen, the clang of pots and pans. We follow characters as they do simple things: collect firewood and bicker about the direction they should take, but, most constantly, walk. Conversation is kept to a minimum as everyone saves their breath. Violence is, as in life, extremely rare and frightening. The most dramatic moment of the film consists of the lowering of the carts down a steep incline: a reversal of the real life trail where it was a steep rise that need to be cleared and negotiated. When it comes to survival, the gun is secondary in importance to the water barrel. When Michelle Williams fires a warning shot, it seems a toss up as to whether the gun will save her or back-fire and kill her.


When thinking about authenticity we have to be careful. The actual trail-blazing of the real Stephen Meek was of a bigger scale and proved far more deadly. Reichardt’s film, presumably for micro-budgetary reasons, stripped down the actual wagon train from the hundreds of participants to just three families and some youngsters. The period detail is not simply in the grimy costumes, which Reichardt insists were not washed for the duration of the shoot. After all, Unforgiven (1992) had William Munny crawling in the mud with his diseased pigs. Rather it is in its treatment of time that the film is at its most challenging and also most radical. There are two films that come to mind particularly. During the opening sequence of Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) Sergio Leone indulged in a protracted joke. All those gun slingers who wait on the good guy just to be shot: what are they doing before he arrives? The iconic Western actors, Woody Strode and Jack Elam, along with Al Mulock, the unlucky one-armed bounty hunter from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) all go about a little bit of business (the fly, the water dripping in the hat) to a soundtrack - meticulously composed by Ennio Morricone, despite the apparent absence of music - of buzzing, creaking, the wind, and the dripping. Fulfilling the dictum that cinema abhors a vacuum, the Waiting for Godot ambience is soon filled with things to do. Little stories. Real life. Until the arrival of Harmonica and the film proper can begin. Meek’s Cutoff feels like this justly famous opening sequence, except that in Reichardt’s film Harmonica never arrives, and life, such as it is, goes on.

To look for a film that maintains a similar pace that seems attuned to its period rather than the sensibilities of mainstream cinema, we might have to go back to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). However, Kubrick’s stately, if not painterly, slowing of pace derails the main dynamic of his source material. Thackery’s novel is supposed to be, and indeed is, funny. Kubrick’s film is drained of humour and becomes a meditative and mournful portrait of an almost tragic hero, rather than the romp of a scoundrel.

I fully understand that it will be the pace of the film which will put some people off. Reviews might say ‘hypnotic’, but the canny reader can clearly see the word ‘boring’ crouching behind the critic-ese. But this is exactly the originality and challenge of Meek’s Cutoff. The Oregon Trail and life for the trailer-blazers was for the most part made up of very long stretches of boredom, punctuated by moments of perhaps violent danger, or perhaps just perpetual, drawn-out danger. It takes special courage of a truly independent type (dare I say maverick) to confront the drudgery of the West, without seeking the cutoff of generic play and the glamour and excitement that goes with it. The film’s marketing cannot possibly live up to that. After all, who would go to see a film with a water barrel on the poster?

This Alternate Take was published on April 21, 2011.

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