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Home » Culture and Criticism

7/31: Meek’s Cutoff

Submitted by on December 7, 2011 – 5:46 PM7 Comments

A one-star reviewer of Meek’s Cutoff on the IMDb complained that there’s no dialogue for the first 15 minutes. This is one of the many things I liked about the movie. These people have gotten lost on the Oregon Trail, and conduct most of their journeying on foot in the dust and sun, and I can only tell you about I-80, and in a car, but by the time I got to the edge of Wyoming, I didn’t have much chit-chat left. This is what it is at the continental divide: go; stop; go.

It’s cool to watch Meek’s Cutoff in the same week as watching Malick, and see the different approaches of Malick and Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) towards shooting landscape and rendering it as character. Reichardt has it as an adversary here, but in an almost trickster style, via several fantastic scene transitions; in one, early on, the wagon train seems to walk out into the gilded clouds; in another, much later, the land is so broad that you lose your visual bearings, and can’t tell whether to look for a wagon the size of an insect or a hillock or what. The country doesn’t seem evil, just implacably large. It was hard enough to get across it all in a car in 2011, much less in full skirts and bonnets that cut off the peripheral vision entirely, on foot, without knowing where the next water is, carrying a gun that takes two full minutes to load for a single shot.

Michelle Williams is flawless in the sequence where you learn they’ve basically got a blunderbuss to defend them and not much else. She’s rushed, but assured; in fact, she’s flawless pretty much throughout the film — stern and substantial. Couch Baron wrote earlier in the week about Williams’s talent, and I agree that she’s usually very strong, but the repetition had begun to wear, the emotional impaction, the twitchy frailty over and over. Here, in dark woolly hair and unfussy, un-indie attire, muttering aloud to herself, she’s finally the character, and not the actress doing such a fantastic job playing the character. It helps also that we’re not asked to buy her as a plate-shifting beauty, so she can just do the work and not have to stand around finding her angles all the time.

Bruce Greenwood as the titular Meek hits just the right note of exhausting know-it-all, and Paul Dano is also very good. I think Dano is cast for a certain still-Adam’s-apples-run-deep thing, and he does that thing and it’s fine, but he has a lot more to offer if given the space, and he offers it here, bursting with and then retreating from the manic energy of fear.

And that ending, in the inexorable land…love it. It’s so simple and direct; the script has such a good ear for itself and what it needs and doesn’t need. It’s as unadorned as a myth, perhaps because it is a myth.

I don’t know that it’s for everyone. If you come across the phrase “tone poem” in a review and stop reading all, “Nope!”, you might find Meek’s Cutoff dull. I liked it a great deal, and I hope it gets at least a few nominations, although that doesn’t seem likely.




  • Empress says:

    I’ve been curious about this one, and after reading this I’ve added it to the queue.

    In other news, I’ve got an ad on this screen for an online Oregon Trail game with the charming headline, “Help the Settler’s Through Oregon’s Trail.” Aaaaargh.

  • Kristina says:

    Boy I don’t mean to be ignorant, but that came out this year? I seriously thought that was from last year, and she’d already gotten a nomination for it.

  • caffeine72 says:

    I’ve been very into the quiet movies of late. If you’re into them, also check out (on Netflix Instant) Hunger & Valhalla Rising. One has Fassbender and the other Mads Mikkelsen, so eyecandy, ho!

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Kristina: They sent me a screener for awards consideration for this year, so…maybe? I don’t even know anymore.

  • Michael says:

    She was nominated for “Blue Valentine” last year.

  • […] is moving; it almost minced my sanity and I probably only heard it for a total of five minutes. And Sarah mentioned in her review how “implacably large” the film’s country looks — it reminds me of a family film I saw as a child called Across The Great Divide, that also […]

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    This is now available on Netflix Instant.

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