Meek's Cutoff Review
Meek's Cutoff inspires a number of questions while, intentionally it would seem, answering few, if any. It's a difficult film to our normal senses, though not necessarily a challenging one. Cinematic creature comforts like ample light, easily understood dialogue and a sense of narrative momentum are all frequently avoided in Kelly Reichardt's 2010 movie. There are familiar names and faces among the cast but even they are only recognizable to varying degrees. This western shrugs off the widescreen format, peculiarly using the antiquated Academy aspect ratio instead, and offers no straight heroes or villains, gunfights or horse chases. It's a potential bore that rewards the patient and everyone else who would like to feel a movie as much as see or hear it.
Not a word is spoken for the first ten minutes of the picture, as Reichardt visually establishes her setting. A group of eight, three couples, a young boy and guide Stephen Meek, are on the Oregon Trail, but their journey has potentially gotten off course. They're days beyond when they were supposed to arrive at their destination and the water supply is dwindling. Suspicion is growing that Meek, who's played by a nearly indiscernible Bruce Greenwood, may not know where he's going. A slow power shift takes place over the course of the film, with Solomon (Will Patton) and his wife Emily (Michelle Williams) taking over the leadership role from Meek. Millie (Zoe Kazan) and Thomas (Paul Dano) form the main voices of dissent with an often whiny or shrill complaint aggravated by desert paranoia. The Gateleys, William (Neal Huff), Glory (Shirley Henderson), and young Jimmy (Tommy Nelson) tend to supportively fade into the background.
Conversations lit only slightly by a lantern or flame, creating a feeling of clandestine worry and doom, become important exchanges of ideas in a film that keeps plot direction and characterizations so close to its vest. The climactic development early on is the capture of an Indian (Rod Rondeaux) by Meek and Solomon. The former wants to immediately murder him while the latter hopes this mystical figure of indeterminate motive can lead the group to a water source. It makes for a test as to whether the increasingly irrelevant Meek holds enough sway over the would-be settlers to get his way. The reasons why the Indian is not killed go largely unspoken. Whether it's merely the possibility of reaching water or more to spare a human life becomes one of those many ponderable inquiries Meek's Cutoff offers without answer. Some quiet moments follow, in which Michelle Williams' Emily, perhaps because she'd come across the Indian earlier and been done no harm, forms a very cold and potentially one-sided bond with him. Since the Indian speaks his own language and the film is so cagey in general, it's unclear as to whether the "heathen," as Meek calls him, is in any way affected by Emily's actions.
The essay included with Oscilloscope's release of the film, an enlightening piece written by Richard Hell, describes Reichardt as stubborn, a word that perfectly explains so much of why Meek's Cutoff is a unique viewing experience. We saw this with her two previous films, both Old Joy and, particularly, Wendy and Lucy. Reichardt enjoys being different, whether it's Brechtian, as Hell offers, or simply an artifice. Wendy and Lucy has a level of emotional pull, while still satisfying the narrative in ways the other two resist, but the mastery of craft and overall vision should never be questioned. These films also remain politically interested, with much to say along the margins. They are both buoyed and undone by their singularity. They come across, ultimately, as works minus compromise and formed in whole by Reichardt and her co-writer Jon Raymond. Their ability to coexist with arthouse fare on cinema screens and on the ever-shrinking shelves of rental and retail stores is a remarkable achievement in itself.
The utter lack of glamour in Meek's Cutoff is a striking, though consistent, development expected from Reichardt but maybe not from its cast members. The most male and among the most romantic of genres no longer recognizes such limitations of gender and the like. What comes through here are faces sprinkled with dirt, in need of water and filled with the anxiety that accompanies being hopelessly lost. One hesitates to state the obvious, but this is nonetheless a modern western, an anti-western if you will, from the female perspective and therefore unconcerned with stroking the male ego entrenched in the genre's canon. Guns are rarely seen, used, or pulled in the film. The most striking occurrences of the use of firearms all involve a female, Williams' Emily, and she's hardly an Annie Oakley type of figure.
Where Meek's Cutoff leaves its mark the strongest is in being unexpected. It chooses the path less taken at virtually every opportunity. It must be acknowledged that this can at times feel tiresome, as with the dark scenes and unclear dialogue. At some point, initially for most, the question arises as to why such choices were made when just a little bit more light was surely available or the spoken words could have been made a tad more audible. This, however, is probably missing the point. Reichardt neglected her film, and thus her audience, of these things on purpose. By drawing attention to such deprivations, increased levels of naturalism and voyeurism and any number of assimilating factors are made obvious. We know we're viewing a film, an inescapable fact, but Reichardt seems interested in breaking that cozy wall down as much as possible. Whatever she's doing, it's made an impact on a good number of important viewers since her last three features have all received glowing plaudits and recognition. In some sense, the continued search for water in Meek's Cutoff plays as a further form of deprivation to the audience, in which we're vicariously stricken with the same thirst as the film's characters. Their confusion and sense of disorientation translates also, made more vivid by the lack of compromise in the storytelling.
Oscilloscope Laboratories has brought Meek's Cutoff to region-free Blu-ray in the U.S. with a release that also contains a companion DVD. Both discs are dual-layered and they are housed in typically attractive Oscilloscope fashion in an all-cardboard digipak with slipcover box. Interior artwork panels remain consistent with the striking, though potentially misleading, cover design.
The visual quality of the high definition transfer consistently impresses. It presents the film in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio per the director's wishes. The apparent reasoning by Kelly Reichardt was that the comparatively narrow aspect ratio better simulates how the film's bonnet-wearing female characters would see things because of their severely limited peripheral vision. The choice certainly provides the viewer with more to chew on, both thematically and aesthetically, than one of the typical widescreen standards would have done. Such a detailed rendering as what we have here on the Blu-ray garners increased appreciation for the vistas and landscapes in the film. The transfer is immaculate and well-balanced. Colors appear true, with exceptional contrast and clarity. Dark nighttime scenes that show hardly any light look sufficiently deep. These are particularly strong in high definition, where the blackness seems almost overwhelming. The image is simply beautiful on the whole, filmlike, and a perfect display of the film.
Audio offers two options on the Blu-ray, both in English. There's a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that subtly emphasizes the surrounding noises and sounds of nature. Dialogue can at times be very difficult to understand, though this seems to be an intentional choice by the filmmakers rather than a flaw in the audio mix. I found it somewhat less trying to make out the dialogue when listening to the LPCM 2.0 stereo track. You do lose some of the ambience and overall fullness from the DTS-HD option but it still makes for a sufficient alternative. Subtitles, valuable here, are available in English for the hearing impaired and are optional. They are white in color. The DVD contains both stereo 2.0 and surround 5.1 audio options.
Extra features are, perhaps appropriately, sparse. Only "The Making of Meek's Cutoff" (9:36), a literal behind the scenes piece choppily edited and without the aid of interviews or logical structure, and the film's theatrical trailer (2:27) appear on the disc. Some additional previews for other Oscilloscope releases, including Wendy and Lucy, can also be accessed from the menu. The short essay by Richard Hell that I mentioned in my film review is printed directly on one of the digipak's panels and is a good read.