"We're not lost, we're just finding our way."
About a decade or so ago, most people had declared the Western to be dead. Throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s, the Western genre had been one of the most popular, spawning some great talent from John Ford to John Wayne to Clint Eastwood. The generally accepted "death" of the Western was Eastwood's 1992 Best Picture winner Unforgiven. There were many westerns made after that from Tombstone to Lonesome Dove to Open Range, but it was generally thought that there wouldn't be a real renaissance for the genre and that it was all but dead.
However, in the last few years, there's been a resurgence of the Western, mainly through it's expansion into other genres. While Sam Peckinpah is widely regarded as the grandfather of the ultra-violent western, that particular sub-genre has been the most prominent recently as directors have been wanting to infuse their films with more "gritty realism." While some have been remakes like 3:10 to Yuma and True Grit, there have been some good originals too from The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to The Proposition to the HBO series Deadwood.
Director Kelly Reichardt seems an unlikely candidate to film a Western, but her films have a stark austerity to them that lends itself well to the genre. In 2011 she tried her hand at a Western with Meek's Cutoff, the story of a group of settlers in Oregon circa 1845. They have hired a guide named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to lead them over a mountain range, and he leads them over the plains in what he claims to be a shortcut. The group becomes increasingly hopeless and filled with despair as they are running low on water and have not encountered any in some time.
The band of settlers consists of three families, Emily (Michelle Williams) and Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton), Thomas (Paul Dano) and Millie (Zoe Kazan) and the Whites, the pregnant Glory (Shirley Henderson), her husband William (Neal Huff) and their son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson). They begin circulating rumors among themselves that perhaps Meek is leading them astray on purpose, but if not, he has definitely gotten them lost.
Meek is certainly the type of individual about whom such rumors wouldn't seem far fetched. He's given to braggadocio (always wanted to use that word in a review) and fits of egotism that are endlessly frustrating to the settlers. He is constantly berating them, particularly the women, telling them that they need to trust him to do the job they hired him to do. Before long, they cross paths with a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) and the group becomes instantly divided about what to do. Meek tells them that they need to kill him or he will surely lead them to his tribe where they'll be killed.
Meek has proven himself untrustworthy at best and negligent at worst, so the settlers offer the native a blanket in exchange for leading them to water. Meek continues on with them, but mainly it seems to be there when the natives kill them and he can say "toldja so." Their journey continues and they seem to be wandering as aimlessly as before, but the native is definitely leading them somewhere, so they continue to follow him.
SPOILERS AHEAD... The film takes a turn in the last fifteen minutes when Meek tries to kill the native and Emily threatens to kill him if he does. Their standoff ends and the next day they arrive at a tree, a sure sign of water in the area. The settlers stop at the tree and the native continues over the hill and the film ends. Now I suppose this is open to interpretation, but I think it's pretty clear that the native was leading them to water as he was continuing on. Who knows? Maybe it was a ruse, but when he began saying a prayer over the ill and dying William two scenes earlier, I figured he probably wasn't leading them to a slaughter. SPOILERS END.
For the most part, I would say that it's a good film. It didn't hold me captive the way I wanted it to, but maybe if I saw it in a theater it would have been a better experience. The film is shot in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, so it gives the feeling that you are one of the women on the trail wearing the headdress with blinders on it. I would assume that's the rationale anyway as it seems odd to film a western in this aspect ratio in this day and age. It's effective, but of course having a widescreen tv, I wanted to see more of the landscapes and locales.
The performances are all very good, particularly Bruce Greenwood as Meek. He's a wonderful character actor and is given full reign to chew his way through the wide open scenery here. Michelle Williams is also very good, as she is in everything. I'm not sure how or when, but she has become one of the most reliable actresses working today. She does consistently good work and I hope that more directors are lining up to hire her.
Overall, I would recommend Meek's Cutoff for anyone who's in the mood for a slow, atmospheric Western. It's not as good as Assassination of Jesse James... but honestly, what is? It's a nice companion piece for it however and would make a great, albeit very long, double feature.