Meek’s Cutoff is the kind of movie that tries to transcend genre filmmaking by withholding the conventional pleasures of genre filmmaking. Kelly Reichardt’s film is theoretically a western about a wagon caravan crossing the Oregon Trail in the mid-1840s, but it’s really intended as a parable of the ways Man continually oppresses Woman, as well as of the history of hypocrisy, racism, and blind entitlement that haunts the United States. Every shot is considerably longer than you expect, and the only real character in the first 30 minutes or so is the country itself, which eclipses the often figurine-sized humans who slowly wade across the rivers or trek across the countryside.
This much can be said of Meek’s Cutoff: It conveys what must have been the tedium and the frustration, not to mention the danger, of crossing the not-entirely mapped (or conquered) United States with a vividness and conviction that few films have matched. The jaunty camaraderie that characterizes similarly plotted John Ford or Howard Hawks westerns—or, hell, even those of a brutalist like Sam Peckinpah—has been pointedly pared away in favor of long, ominous, drowsy images that convey the isolation of an undertaking pursued in ego and haste.
And, aesthetically, Meek’s Cutoff is often remarkable. Reichardt has chosen to shoot the film in the square-ish 4x3 aspect ratio that characterizes many films up until the 1940s, and in this case this is more than an ambitious director’s gimmick. This framing obviously imbues the film with a certain suspense (you can’t tell what’s in front or behind the characters in the image) and creates a claustrophobic effect that seems appropriate for travelers who are more than likely lost and even more likely, at any point, to turn on one another.
Reichardt’s incredible formal achievement refreshingly deflates the western of the macho posturing that frequently plagues the genre. But the film also too frequently operates on the level of obvious symbolism: The white men are all simps or braggarts, the white women either headstrong individuals of purity or cowering conformists, while the lone Native American they capture along the way is seemingly a voice of control and good sense. For most of the first hour, the film is a well-photographed and extremely politically correct—or, in other words, deadly dull.
Meek’s Cutoff is more vivid and convincing when it eventually dials the atmospheric pondering down and sets about telling its ultimately conventional story. Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is a callous, racist explorer of dubious intent and reputation who’s been hired by the caravan to lead them across the Oregon Trail and through the Cascade Mountains. Sometime before the beginning of the film, Meek promised the travelers (played by an impressive cast including Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, and Zoe Kazan) that he knew of a shortcut off -path that seems more and more likely to have gotten them lost in the desert with a rapidly dwindling water supply.
Reichardt’s sympathies are clear, and so social points are scored early and often as we see the men meeting to discuss the trail ahead, excluding the women and barely concealing their cluelessness and panic, while the women huddle together to eavesdrop. Each meeting eventually concludes with another pointless, offensive pronouncement of some sort by Meek, who then leads the caravan to resume its travel with the men steering the horses and cattle while the women (in blocking that hammers the point home) trail sometimes far behind the wagons, dresses blowing in the wind.
Much of Reichardt’s intention here is undeniably valid and sincere, but did it occur to her that she’s made a female-centric western in which all of the female characters save one are complete ciphers? Kazan and Henderson, good actresses, are virtually nonexistent; extras could’ve assumed their roles and most viewers wouldn’t have known the difference. Williams’s character is allowed to take center stage about an hour into the film’s running time, and she’s excellent as usual. But a man doing a purposeful caricature walks away with Meek’s Cutoff: As Meek, Greenwood, a talented but sometimes stiff actor, seems to thrill in playing a larger-than-life fool in the mode of Buffalo Bill. Greenwood would appear to understand that the film—even if it’s attempting to criticize or revitalize western iconography—needs to offer at least a few of the conventional pleasures of the genre. Meek, the least sympathetic character in the film, is also the only one who seems to be alive. It’s possible that Reichardt intended this irony, but Meek’s Cutoff is so self-conscious and loaded with underdeveloped portentous meaning that it’s impossible to know for sure.
The craftmanship of this film is astounding, and this is an excellent transfer. The browns and blacks (the predominant colors of a film set mostly in the desert and often at night) are very crisp with little in the way of blurring, and the depth of the image, particularly in the landscapes, is so precise and tangible as to appear nearly three-dimensional. The entire film has an emphasis on the tactility of surfaces and objects (the threads in a dress, the beams of light in the water, the pores in fingers) that is well-represented in this transfer. The surround sound has also been mixed with care, effectively honoring the film’s concern with the ambient sounds, most predominantly of the wagons, that come to define the characters’ trek.
Not much: a well-written appreciation of the film by Richard Hell, as well as a making-of featurette that’s strikingly comprised simply of footage of the cast and crew working without any narration or cuts to people talking of the film in retrospect. This approach honors the ambiguity of the film, while also providing a quick glimpse of a shoot that would appear to be rather arduous. Plus, as always, the trailer.
This stunning yet frustratingly remote film gets the exemplary transfer it deserves.