One of the more popular American independent directors today is Kelly Reichardt whose examinations of American life shun ostentatious observations. While her sensibility gets applauded in some critical circles, it is held highly suspect in others including Shlomo Schwartzberg who last year wrote about her latest picture.
Set in the Oregon territory of 1845, Meek’s Cutoff, which is loosely based on fact, centres on a band of would be homesteaders, three couples, one with a child, and their guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who have gotten dangerously lost in the forbidding desert. Running low on supplies, and more ominously, on water, they’ve begun to suspect that Meek doesn’t really know where he’s going and must make a fateful decision: should they head out in a different direction or stick with their guide and, thus possibly die with him, as well? When they capture an Indian (Ron Rondeaux), of the Cayuse tribe, a new possibility presents itself. Maybe, just maybe, their captive can lead them to water and safety. But since they can’t communicate with him – none speak his language, nor he theirs – they don’t know what to do or whom to trust: Meek – who is virulently hostile to the Cayuse – or the Indian. (He’s not given any other name in the credits but that one.)
|Bruce Greenwood in Meek's Cutoff|
Shot on location, Meek’s Cutoff isn’t devoid of atmosphere – that’s Reichardt's sole strength as a filmmaker – but, unlike the superb HBO TV series Deadwood, set only a few decades later in the South Dakota territory, she’s utterly incapable of locating the mundane facts of day to day life within the parameters of meaningful existence as that show did so well. Meek’s Cutoff is so narrowly interested in showing us exactly how the settlers lived, from the inappropriateness of their thick clothing in a desert setting to the way the women (mostly) defer to their men, that the film neglects to broaden its scope and tell us something more provocative and gripping than that. The film’s ostensibly most suspenseful scene, a classic western stand-off, isn’t. The movie may not be as irritating or tiresome as Gus Van Sant’s supremely tedious film Gerry (2002), another American lost in the desert misadventure, but it’s about as negligible.
|Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff|
|Director Kelly Reichardt|
- originally published on May 13, 2011 in Critics at Large.