“There’s a plot of land, just down that hill.”
After seeing Certain Women, I sought out more of writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s films. One was and is available on Canadian Netflix: Meek’s Cutoff, a plodding depiction of life on the American frontier; no one can be trusted yet people band together when faced with deserts so flat and expansive they meet the horizon.
At this time in history, the late 1800s, there were two types of death: battle, and disease-based (including malnutrition and hunger). This movie concerns itself only with the latter, and with boredom and with the paranoia that boredom and the potential for danger breed.
But do not watch this expecting The Revenant. This the anti-Revenant.
Maybe it’s the camera position, or the well-drawn yet inward characters, but Reichardt’s got that thing, the intangible ability to create anticipation from what seems like nothing. That ability works well here, because we assume the characters feel the same way. Three couples have come together to travel across American land and they’ve only got Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to guide them. They’re not sure they can trust him, and so they must go on gut feeling and logic: why would Meek take them in the wrong direction? He too would die.
The feeling that something is bound to go wrong plagues this movie for a few reasons. One reason is conflict is a fundamental part of film structure, and thanks to a history of westerns filled with gun battles, we suspect interpersonal conflict will not be the only kind of conflict over the course of this hour and twenty minutes. Another reason is the way Meek’s Cutoff is constructed. When a character is shut out of a conversation, it’s as though they are exactly far enough away to hear that the conversation is happening but are not able to make out any words, or only small parts of words. Like a couple in the apartment above you. It’s infuriating, and surely that’s how the outsider character must feel. There are manipulative effects like this throughout Meek’s Cutoff and they work, but it doesn’t make the film a fun experience.
There’s little to say about the cast, except that it’s filled with some of the most talented actors working today: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Bruce Greenwood. Based on each actor’s filmography, they seem to be the right choices for a Kelly Reichardt film, I just wish they’d had more to do. They’re less memorable characters and more memorable figures in something like a painting or a tableau. We may seem them perform different actions but we don’t get any closer to them, and there’s a lot we as the audience must do to fill in the wide gaps. Consider how broad a range of responses one painting is able to create. The same goes for Meek’s Cutoff. We all see the same ingredients differently.
Meek’s Cutoff acts more like an experiment in how to engage an audience against their will rather than how to serve them. I’m happy working filmmakers (especially ones as talented and boundless as Reichardt) have no fear of alienating a mainstream audience in the pursuit of their vision.
While Meek’s Cutoff may not be a crowd-pleaser, it’s clear Reichardt learned a lot from the experience. She has only become a better filmmaker since then.
Meek’s Cutoff premiered in 2010. Certain Women premiered in 2016. Reichardt’s cinematic personality remains similar, but the ideas that belong to the personality, and all of its tendencies, seem more fully realized.