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    husband, dad, teacher, filmmaker, writer, film geek, musician, DIYer, vegetarian, Bulldog, Buckeye, Nighthawk

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Meek’s Cutoff has been mentioned as a candidate for Best Of 2011 lists. With many other strong films now making their way into critics’ mailboxes, I’m not convinced Meek’s will end up in many top tens. But it is awfully good, featuring stunning cinematography, an infectious and meditative narrative, and yet another impressive lead performance by Michelle Williams (I think she’ll end up nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for My Week With Marilyn and might even win).

Meek’s is a Western, but not in the tradition of John Ford, John Wayne, Monument Valley, outlaw heroes, and the usual set pieces. There are no gunfights, no chases, no saloons, no drunken newspapermen, no righteous lawmen, etc. On the story level, it’s quite minimal. A small group of pioneers – six couples and one child – are being lead through Oregon territory by a boastful, dubious frontier guide named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). By the time we join them, Meek has gotten the group lost. They are running out of water and other resources, debating whether to hang Meek, and wondering which direction might lead them back to civilization. Death is a tangible likelihood.

The film focuses on the effects of this aimlessness and hopelessness. It reminds me of a lot of American West literature in that way. The characters walk along, nothing more than faith and hope determining their path. Long takes and virtuoso sound design place us among the group, allowing us to feel all of the isolation and fatalism of the situation. This is a scenario that leads to madness for many, and Meek’s Cutoff expresses that potential brilliantly.

The other major movement of the film begins when the group captures a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) who has been stalking them. They rope and tie the poor man like an animal. They soon realize he is potentially a more capable guide than Meek, though, so they force him to lead the way toward what they hope is survival. It is a tenuous trust to say the least.

Meek’s Cutoff‘s storylines subvert two of the dominant themes in the Western genre, both literature and film: European-Americans bringing civilization to the American West and conquering indigenous peoples. These characters may have begun their journey with visions of a city upon a hill, but their little rituals and adherence to etiquette appear increasingly absurd and meaningless as their prospects dwindle. The big complaint here will be the lack of action and climactic storytelling. But that misses the point. The subjects here are the West itself and the experience, particularly the psychological impacts, of venturing into the unknown.

Will Patton, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson, and Neal Huff all give realistic, restrained performances. As usual, though, the rest of the cast is out-shined by Williams, who has quietly become one of our best working actors.

Meek’s Cutoff isn’t for everyone. If, for instance, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller are too slow and ambiguous for you – which is a fair criticism – then don’t bother with Meek’s. But for those of us who are satisfied by pictorial beauty and implicit meaning, it’s a real treat.


2 Responses

  1. It is just refreshing that real movies about the west are even made nowadays. Very nice site Jeff.

    • Thanks for reading and for the kind words. It’s probably obvious that I’m a Western fan, too, so I agree wholeheartedly.

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