Meek’s Cutoff

Watched: 5 September

The phrase anti-western is bandied around a lot, but in the case of Kelly Reichardt’s tale of settlers travelling through 1840s Oregon – my Blind Spot for September – it’s very much applicable. For one thing, there are no heroic men here – at least not in the traditional American western sense – and unusually the threats or problems that concern the small group of travellers are largely unseen or are never actually faced. One of these is a potential shortage of water, which becomes even more of a concern when one of a few wagons used by the group for transporting essential goods is destroyed; another is the threat of a Native American attack; and then there’s the question of whether or not to trust either the unnamed Native American that the group captures (played by Rod Rondeaux), or Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), the frontier guide leading the group west. In real life Meek led an ill-fated expedition, and the Meek Cutoff is a route that runs through the Oregon desert, though one never gets the sense that this film is either a historic pitcture concerned with the presentation of numerous facts or indeed that it’s in any way tethered by real life events. Reichardt’s direction of the actors – who bandy together in twos and threes as their characters share hushed, often inaudible conversations – is impressive, with Michelle Williams, Will Patton and Greenwood standing out among the cast, while she also sets up and then steadfastedly sticks to a slow pace and a bleak tone. Presented in the Academy ratio, it’s a strange outlier and a hugely atmospheric piece that pushes its actors to the forefront. (****)

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