By Brian Lafferty
May 6, 2011 (San Diego) – Looking at it one way, Meek’s Cutoff is an absorbing and spellbinding film. Looking another way, it can be aggressively boring. I viewed it from the former angle. Meek’s Cutoff presents one of the year’s biggest challenges so far to people’s attention spans. My severe ADHD, however, was no match for it.
Taking place in 1845, the film depicts three families stranded in the middle of nowhere on the Oregon Trail. Their hired guide, Meek (Bruce Greenwood), is less-than-reliable and responsible for their getting lost. They wander and find a Native American. Some of the travelers want him to be their navigator while the others refuse out of born hatred and fear of Indians. This causes much friction.
Those looking for structure will be as hopelessly lost as the travelers. There is none, at least not in the traditional three-act formula. This is acceptable because it keeps in line with the world of the movie. The characters don’t know where they are, where they’ll end up, and what will happen next. Just as the characters’ journey doesn’t have any structure, neither does the screenplay.
This avoidance of traditional ABC structure creates unpredictability. It also belies the movie’s extremely languid pace; it transforms what could have been a slow and lifeless experience into something exciting and captivating.
Director Kelly Reichardt employs a passive, slow, and contemplative approach. Some may find themselves frequently checking their watches and impatiently squirming in their seats. I had the opposite reaction. I relaxed my mind and let the movie happen. Rather than telling the story primarily through dialogue, Reichardt and cinematographer Chris Blauvelt use images, every one of which I took in.
When I arrived for the screening I was surprised to hear from the projectionist that the movie was filmed in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio; in other words, it’s not widescreen. Reichardt and Blauvelt use this to their advantage. They frequently implement extreme wide shots, which lend both epic scope and grandeur. Hills and mountains become towering and valleys look like miniature Grand Canyons.
Because it isn’t in widescreen, it’s easier to take in each image; if the aspect ratio were any wider, my eyes would have wandered too much, which would have undermined the experience. It wouldn’t be the case in other films but this one is meditative and passive.
Reichardt, who also pulls double duty as editor, keeps the cutting to a minimum. She usually reserves edits for when the action moves to the next scene; long takes are not uncommon.
Meek’s Cutoff has a lot of natural flavor. Nighttime scenes are pitch-black; Blauvelt forgoes day for night filters, which result in artificiality (see John Ford’s The Searchers as an example of day for night filter use). The only way you can see characters and their surroundings are through campfires. This contrasts with the scorching, starkly bright daytime.
There are long stretches of silence except for squeaking stagecoach wheels, clopping of bulls’ and burrows’ hooves, and footsteps. The characters and wagons move slowly. Camera movement is rare but when it occurs, it is always deliberate.
Usually when a movie begins like this, it will often implode at some point under its own weight. Meek’s Cutoff doesn’t collapse; Reichardt manages to sustain it. She never goes overboard nor does she wallow in the languidness and naturalness.
Meek’s Cutoff is currently playing at the Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas.
An Oscilloscope Pictures Release. Director and Editor: Kelly Reichardt. Writer: Jon Raymond. Cinematographer: Christopher Blauvelt. Music: Jeff Grace. Cast: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Ron Rondeaux. 104 minutes. Rated PG.