Review: MEEK'S CUTOFF; Show-Stealing Michelle Williams In Often Terminally Dull Western Drama

rating: 2

(Rob's Venice review re-posted as Meek's Cutoff is released in the U.K. from today) Today saw the premiere of another American film in competition: a sort of lo-fi Western, directed by Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy), called Meek€™s Cutoff. The film follows three wagons of settlers moving west across the Oregon Trail in 1845, led by the unreliable and potentially dangerous Stephen Meek (based on a historical figure). Soon they capture an Indian, dividing the small and Puritanical party. Do they kill him? Will he be their undoing? One lady opines that they should get rid of him on the grounds that he isn't wearing enough clothing, also saying "they don't think like us, and that's a noted fact." What follows is a sparse film of long walks and little dialogue. We witness the hardships endured by those early pioneers as simple tasks, like finding water and moving a wagon safely downhill, take hours and back-breaking effort. This certainly feels authentic and manages to avoid Dances With Wolves/Avatar/Pocahontas cliché in its depiction of the two intersecting worlds. Even as one character comes to want to understand the Indian, he remain unknowable and perhaps even dangerous. Here it also becomes text about semiotics and of the fear caused by the absence of meaning, as time and time again the indian's carvings and chants are feared to have an underlying sinister intent. Perhaps he is signalling to potential rescuers? There is no fireside chat in which names are exchanged and bonds are established. Neither party is forced to rethink their evil ways. It's not that sort of film. Michelle Williams, who is working with the director for a second time, is absolutely, show-stealingly brilliant in her role as one of the travellers. Her face able to register a look of resentment and contempt the likes of which I have never seen. It also features Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, who is brilliant as the uber-religious one and responsible for the films few comic moments, and Zoe Kazan, whose constant fearful bleating recalls a hyper-ventilating Shelly Duvall in The Shining. All these actors perform well on limited material. Only the titular Meek is played over the top, with Bruce Greenwood sometimes straying into the voice of an old prospector from a bad western. Everybody else downplays it and it works great. Certainly it is a slow and thoughtful film, and a seemingly an authentic one too. It doesn't quite justify its slightly bloated running time (under two hours, but it felt longer, which is seldom a good thing) and there were many walk outs at the screening I attended. Sometimes it was terminally dull, but I ended up wondering if that was the point: I suppose their journey would sometimes have been dull, right? I'm not sure whether it's laudable to recreate that condition for an audience or not. But still, another film that leaves something to chew on afterwards, and another that seems better on reflection then it was at the time. Meek's Cutoff is released in the U.K. on limited release from today.
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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.