Meek’s Cutoff

Screening on Film
Directed by Kelly Reichardt.
With Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano.
US, 2010, 35mm, 104 min.

Reichardt’s first period film is a starkly Gothic Western loosely based on the true and harrowing story of a group of settlers who, in 1845, found themselves hopelessly lost and far from water, seemingly led astray by their guide Stephen Meek as he searched for his now-eponymous route to the Willamette Valley. Set upon the parched Oregon High Desert, Meek’s Cutoff uses its bleak setting and elliptical structure to lend a mesmerizing fable-like quality to its pared down narrative. Reichardt and Raymond’s reinvention of Meek as a deluded, messianic dreamer gives a critical edge to Meek’s Cutoff as a parable about the settlement of the West and, consequently, the displacement of the same indigenous people who play a charged role in the film. The film’s severely difficult shoot included struggles against hostile weather and recalcitrant oxen, hardships legible in the disorientation and anxiety so effectively evoked by the cast led, once again, by Michelle Williams, now joined by Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson and a shaggy Bruce Greenwood as the increasingly sinister Stephen Meek. Working closely with master cinematographer Chris Blauvelt, Reichardt crafts striking images that resemble a sun-blasted, collective fever dream of Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer and Frederic Remington, accented by the women’s tight, blindered bonnets that echo the covered wagons to poetically embody the settler’s perilously narrow vision. Crisply shot in the now-historic Academy ratio, Meek’s Cutoff refuses the kind of sunset sublime so often associated with the Western to instead explore an abstract, more subtly expressive landscape in tune with the uneasy and trance-like spell cast by the film. 

Part of film series

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Traveling Light
The Films of Kelly Reichardt