Meek’s Cutoff (USA, 2011)

meeks-cutoff-poster-AUDirected by: Kelly Reichardt. This movie didn’t turn out to be what I thought it would be, but it turned out to be a really beautiful and memorable film, and possibly one of the most original films I’ve seen in a long time. This film basically shows me how little I know about contemporary American independent cinema. I guess I thought it was all mumblecore (whatever that is), but this film really struck with me how little it has to do with anything in modern Hollywood. I didn’t know you were allowed to make movies this quiet and patient and deliberate and thoughtful and slow-paced in the United States in this day and age. I’m happy to see that there is at least some room for such films in the cinemas. I know that this wasn’t a huge blockbuster, and I think it was drowned out of the Oscar buzz by the usual emotional histrionics and award-bait of each year, but I hope that this movie got its due. If you have to label it, please don’t label it a Western. First and foremost it’s an art film, but the setting isn’t an afterthought—it informs a major part of the drama of the film. It’s fair to call it a corrective Western, or a post-Western, since it has more in common with McCabe and Mrs Miller than it does to Stagecoach or even Unforgiven. Mainly, what I took away from this film, was a more or less detached observation on human hardship as it struggles against the land. The story itself is as spartan as the landscape it’s set in: a small wagon train of settlers are led into a shortcut by an untrustworthy trailsman named Meek, whose hunches prove increasingly unreliable (this much is  based on real stuff). The main plot twists involve the increasingly fractious group dynamics as the settlers trust Meek less and less. Where the “corrective” element comes in is how the film puts modern concerns at its center. This film would be nothing if not for the fact that at its core, the film questions these main pillars of Western ideology—the inherent strength and wisdom of masculinity, and the natural assumption that white settlers had any claim to land that was already populated when they got there. In this wagon train full of doubtful, hesitant menfolk, Michelle Williams’ character is probably the strongest character in the whole film, and it’s her critical, hard-bitten personality that brings some life into this otherwise barren, although beautiful, landscape. What makes the film truly remarkable to me is that these corrective, 21st century elements plunked down into this inherently racist and misogynistic setting feels so natural, instead of coming off as clumsy or patronizing. Everything flows smoothly for me, and it really only works because the aboriginal character (played with incredible restraint and ingenuity by Rod Rondeaux) is so singularly perplexing in a way that’s resistant to our Western colonial projections, and because the female lead is so damn strong that we don’t hesitate for a moment to believe that this nineteenth-century housewife would end up being the leader of the pack. Michelle Williams gets a lot of praise, but she also gets a lot of dirt kicked in her hair, and I’ll stand for none of it. I’ve seen her in some terrible stuff (remember Incendiary?) but I’ve also seen her in some amazing stuff, and with this film she proves yet again that she’s a tremendously talented actress. If the awards establishment weren’t just an empty skeleton of a symbolic process, beholden to political deals and gestures, Michelle Williams would have at least been nominated for Best Actress at some major awards. It’s notable that this movie came out the same year as My Week With Marilyn, which was fine, and which Michelle did an equally great job with, but which was an altogether inferior film to this one, and which won Michelle a whole heap of nominations and awards. In other words: Michelle in a sexy Marylin Munroe costume vs. Michelle covered in a burlap sack—which one wins? But before I go down a cynical rabbit hole here, I’ll just pull back and remark again on what a good movie this is. If you’re a fan of Westerns, this will be an interesting variation on the formula. And if you’re into mumblecore, you might like this too.


3 responses to “Meek’s Cutoff (USA, 2011)

  1. Pingback: List of Judgements, Anno Domini 2014 | Offhand Reviews·

  2. Pingback: The Revenant (USA, 2015) | Offhand Reviews·

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