Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
I saw a trailer for Meek’s Cutoff a few years ago, catching my interest, the cast I knew little about, the cast is usually the first thing that draws me to a film. However there was something about this that stood out to me, the visual style of this western, a fairer representation of women who historically have been seen more as the sex appeal and giving into the dominant men. Of course there were strong roles found during the 1950’s. I think you just had to find the right actress to bring those roles to life.
Coming also with knowledge of the Oregon Trail that has been mentioned in numerous westerns. I never understood what was so good about Oregon why that state. Before learning that was the point where settlers then went their own way. Coming into this film with more knowledge than we actually have in the film, we found a group of lost settlers, complete with three wagons and a guide.
It’s not you’re conventional western, using all the language of the genre in this usually forgotten aspect, as all the settlers either make it in the wagon train or are killed by Native Americans along the way. You never see the lost wagons who have to make it alone, a fate worse than death for these people. Who we now focus on as they make their way through a short cut to rejoin the trail. Three families who have to trust their guide who loses his credibility along the way.
The dialogue is kept to a minimum in the first half as they make their way across the open and vast country, saying very little, more a wonder and hope of food and water, which becomes one of the main theme as water becomes a priority for them, vital for survival. There’s a sense of hope being drained from them all, most in the guide a scruffy man whose face is covered in a thick grey beard, Meek (Bruce Greenwood) a man who has not spent much time in civilised society starts to show his lack of knowledge to these people. Still he remains loyal, out of employment and duty to see them to safety.
It’s only when they encounter a Native American, a figure they as a culture has been taught to fear, the stories of savagery that you never usually hear in the genre, far darker in tone. All this is reinforced by Meek who wants to hurt the innocent native, a racism that runs deep. If it wasn’t for the families who restrain him, still fearful of the stranger, the only hope of finding water.
It’s a rare western that focuses on the hardship that the early settlers, something that is overlooked or romanticized in the classic genre, creating a sense of legend and hope, the foundation of a great country. You can easily forget those who got lost along the way. There is a bleakness to the look of the film, with a washed out pastel pallet during the day. Whilst at night we loose all light practically which adds to the authenticity of the trail. None of classical studio lighting we are used to from bright campfires. Meek’s Cutoff is a rare chance to see into that lost history that the myth of conquest overlooks. With some strong performance from mostly unknown actors who usually have supporting roles, from Paul Dano who seems to be making a lot of period work, to the more mainstream Michelle Williams who takes on strong female role out in the male dominated world.
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