1845, Oregon. Meek's Cutoff (2010) portrays a thirsty and desolate trail, fraught with danger.
I wonder about Stephen Meek. I have done ever since I first saw Meek's Cutoff at 2010's London Film Festival, where it captivated me at the tail-end of a tiresome week. His hair is long and scruffy, his beard unwashed and unkempt, his dress weathered yet classical. In a gruff voice he tells stories of defeating bears and Cayuse tribes, and always presents himself as a man of action. I suspect him a coward, and certainly he's told so many lies that to him - if nobody else - they've become truth. Where did he come from, this man? What life did he once lead? He's the biggest threat posed to a group of three families crossing through the Cascade Mountains. It's 1845, Oregon, and Stephen Meek (played by Bruce Greenwood) is leading these people to a richer land. They've entrusted him with their lives. I wonder what led them to make such a grave decision...
The beautiful irony of Meek's Cutoff is that they could have been on the right path all along. A patchwork title card fades to reveal our protagonists on the dusty trail - they are thirsty, hot and tired. We have no idea where they've come from, how long they've been traveling, or for how long they've been led by Meek, who's clearly as lost as they are. Perhaps he was a desperate man. Perhaps he proposed them a clear path in exchange for wealth, and now suffers for his self-delusion? If the settlers had just carried on for a day in their own direction, would they have stumbled across the right path? Or maybe I'm wrong, and Meek is who he says he is. But then there's no explanation for his increasingly worrying actions. The viewer is always asking questions, and Reichardt - a stunning young talent - is smart enough not to answer any of them. She's a graduate of the mumblecore movement, and her previous two features were Old Joy (2006) and Wendy And Lucy (2008). With this she's made a first for the cinema: a mumblecore Western.
I've never seen another film which comes this close to fairly portraying what frontier life must have been like. Paul Bowles came close in his 1950 short story 'The Delicate Prey', which was about a solitary figure leading three leather merchants into the ever darker depths of a westernmost trail. The environment is hostile, and the denouement bleak. The way Bowles describes the landscape as an unforgiving beast is matched visually by DP Chris Blauvelt, who shoots with natural light in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, recalling the Westerns of John Ford. It's a gorgeous, evocative landscape - almost Malick-like - and despite the vast space which surrounds the characters, the boxed frame creates a sense of claustrophobia and unease. Reichardt mostly employs medium and long shots, which means that her close-ups are all the more devastating. It's very hard to describe the aesthetic of Meek's Cutoff - it's just so absorbing. It tells a story all of its own.
The score by Jeff Grace, which is used sparingly, is also magnificent. At times the sound is distorted, and it reverberates around the landscape. A soft echo (possibly created by steel pans) amplifies the feeling of loneliness. It is a most uncommon sound for the Western, almost anachronistic in its design, and at times called to mind the eeriness of David Lynch. It's not a score which mounts or informs. It is a fleeting moan of despair bouncing from canyon to canyon. It's also worth mentioning the performances, although to single anybody out would be unfair. This is an ensemble piece, and there's not a hair out of place. All of the characters - even those with no more than a couple of lines, or no lines at all - are clearly defined, and have motivations, however mysterious. We believe in their dynamic, and that's essential.
The film ends with the settlers finding a small, isolated tree, still bearing leaves of green. Trees need water to survive, yet there's none to be seen for miles. "We're all just playing our parts now" Meek says. "This was written long before we got here." I wonder about that man...
As much as I wish we could have had a Blu-Ray, this DVD release still looks pretty stunning. Extras are quite flimsy though; a 10-minute 'Making Of' doc and the original trailer, along with a nice booklet detailing the production history, and some history of the old west. Worth picking up for the film alone.