Review: Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

The West as allegory for the East!

Screenplay By: Jonathan Raymond
Directed By: Kelly Reichardt

I watched Meek’s Cutoff with my wife. When the film ended we had two very disparate reactions. I felt that Kelly Reichardt had left me with something to think about, an allegory that could play out in the future in my head. My wife was pissed off and felt that the non-ending rendered the rest of the film meaningless. This simply demonstrates the divisive nature of Miss Reichardt’s film, and the different things that viewers will take away from this 2010 proto-Western.

In the case of my wife she was enjoying the film as a tale of toil and struggle along the infamous Oregon Trail. As such she needed the closure that comes with such a journey. She craved resolution and a scene of water or ultimate death. When she received neither she felt cheated and that dampened her enthusiasm for the rest of the film.

I enjoyed the struggle for survival undertaken by the characters in Meek’s Cutoff. All the same I was more taken by the statements that Miss Reichardt wanted to make about the American way and the risk of the unknown. We do not know our future, we as a nation do not know what lies ahead. We like to think that we know what the future has in store, but in the same vein as the characters in Meek’s Cutoff we could be adrift and lost come tomorrow. The United States thinks it conquered the West, but we simply moved our West to the Middle East and continue to struggle with an area of land that is foreign to us.

I loved the allegorical aspects of Meek’s Cutoff, that is why the ending of the film worked for me in spades. The long range shot that spells the end of Miss Reichardt’s picture does not signal the end of the story. It points to an unknown future and the possibilities that said future may hold for us as a culture. At the same time I can understand why people would react the way my wife did. If someone bought into the film as a tale of the struggle for survival and they were denied resolution they have every right to be upset. Meek’s Cutoff did not end up fulfilling the role that the film had taken on in their minds. Their disappointment makes sense, even if I came away from the film with a completely different reaction.

Shucking my allegorical leanings to the side for a moment, Meek’s Cutoff is a contemplative observational piece that greatly worked for me. Miss Reichardt opts for a feeling of realism and unrelenting dread coupled with a never-ending state of stillness. Her camera picks a spot and stays focused on said shot, slick camera movements have no place in her world of understated realism. The story is found more in Miss Reichardt’s still camera than it is in the plot. The ebbs and flows of the story can all be found in the camera movements and it is the still but deep focus of the camera that makes the final shot so rewarding.

Meek’s Cutoff makes Miss Reichardt three for three with me. The heights of Old Joy or Wendy And Lucy are not reached in Meek’s Cutoff. But, Miss Reichardt still manages to reach pretty impressive heights with her attempt at a Western. It’s certainly not for everyone, and the ending of the film will upset some people. Still, Meek’s Cutoff impressed me, and left me looking forward to more from Miss Reichardt and Michelle Williams.

Rating:

***1/2

Cheers,
Bill

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9 responses to “Review: Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

  1. It certainly is a divisive film, isn’t it? With you, I loved the thematic resonances and felt the ending was perfect but can certainly understand why it might be frustrating for some. Ultimately, one of my favorite films of 2011, and I can’t wait to see what Reichardt does next!

  2. While I much prefer Wendy & Lucy, I did like this film a lot. Notably the way it ended as I feel like it’s just the beginning. I was surprised that it was shot in Oregon. I’m eager for what Kelly Reichardt will do next as well.

  3. Melissa- Same here, I know that she’s said she’s finally moving away from Oregon, but I can’t wait to see what she does next.

    Steven- The ending does have a large “this is just the beginning” vibe to it, the long shot into the distance is really well done.

  4. The thing that prevented me from legitimately liking MEEK’S CUTOFF is incidentally the way it unfolds as so much of an allegory. To some extent I feel allegorical artistic works need to work on their own without allegorical significance before they become important as symbols and so on, and I didn’t believe in the film itself – although I got what it was going for.

    (Oddly, I felt the ending really worked, regardless.)

  5. I see what you’re saying, but I’m not of the same mind. I can get behind a purely allegorical tale because if it’s made itself all about the allegory then it’s given importance to its symbols.

  6. I feel that this film would have been much better as a short – maybe 30 minutes or so. It felt like it had been awkwardly padded in many areas to even achieve the short running time that it had. This included long takes of characters simply walking across the screen, but not cutting for another 15-20 seconds after they had disappeared. And filming it in 4/3 pretty much negates any of the “scope and majesty of the west” that these scenes could have conveyed.

  7. The languid pace of the film was an essential element I thought. The camera staying with the shot after the characters had left the frame emphasized how these characters were not going to tame the West. Long after they were gone the West would still be around, and still be untamed.

    As for the aspect ratio, I felt that was a deliberate choice to avoid conveying any scope and majesty of the West. Miss Reichardt still conveys a sense of the vast space that was the West, but at the same time her smaller frame shows the bleakness of the West. No matter how vast and wide open we thought it was it had its limits, and the characters in Meek’s Cutoff discover that. Plus, their tale is not one of the majesty of the West, but of the harshness of the West and how unprepared we were for it (and still are in the case of the Middle East.)

  8. No beginning. No end. Maybe….a snipit of a story in between. Blah.

  9. Well, we shall agree to disagree. While the story did not follow a conventional narrative or even conventional storytelling techniques I definitely felt that there was a complete and fulfilling story present.

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