A very well acted and intense tale of survival and manages to (mostly) circumvent its incredibly slow pacing, Meek’s Cutoff is at once both a departure for filmmaker Kelly Reichardt and a film very much in line with her previous work. Though not as ultimately powerful as her last movie Wendy and Lucy, this is still very good filmmaking and a flick that never takes the easy route in telling its story. Jonathan Raymond’s sparse screenplay is combined with Reichardt’s contemplative direction to form something that demands a lot from its viewer. I’ll admit to not being as won over by it as some, but the acting in the film, especially that of Michelle Williams, is enough to pull me past the finish line. This is not your average Western, and for that, I give them credit.
The film is set in 1845, right at the start of travels along the Oregon Trail (fans of the old computer game The Oregon Trail would know that already), when any attempt to traverse the terrain was almost a death sentence. A 3 family wagon train, led by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is headed for greener pastures. Meek was hired to safely lead them, and when he claims to know a shortcut, they heed his advice. Soon, they are lost, with food and water running scarce, and anger and distrust running rampant. When they capture a Native American (Rod Rondeaux), they are torn with whether or not to trust this so called “enemy” with potentially leading them to safety. In defense of the captive is Emily (Williams), and that puts her directly into conflict with Meek, leading to a showdown.
Everyone in the cast is good, but they are led by Michelle Williams, doing very good work here in her latest go-around with Reichardt. I slightly preferred her performance in Wendy and Lucy to this, but she’s quiet and understated in just the right way here. With the style that Reichardt is using, the actors need to become the focus, and Williams is more than up to the task. Also doing strong work is Greenwood, as the only real male character who comes into focus at all, as well as Zoe Kazan, who’s probably the second best thing in the film. She’s continuing to impress, and I can’t wait for what comes next for her. There are also nice performances by Shirley Henderson, Paul Dano, Will Patton, and the aforementioned Rondeaux, but I was most affected by Williams and Kazan overall. They were the most memorable, though no one is bad here. The acting is strong across the board.
Kelly Reichardt isn’t a showy director, but she has a good handle on her material. She’s never been that good at pacing a film, and while she still could have done a better job here, this was an unconventional film that would have been an absolute chore to sit through if she didn’t improve a bit, which she has. I’d still like to see her tighten things up, but she’s always an interesting filmmaker to watch, and this is still the case in this instance. Raymond’s screenplay is fine, if not particularly memorable, but it works for what is being shown on screen. There are political allegories to be found if you’re looking for them, but it’s subtle enough that it’s far from distracting or anything like that. I would have liked a little “more” overall, but it’s a small complaint.
Although missing something (I’m not 100% sure what though) to make it a great film, Meek’s Cutoff is still a very solid and unconventional Western that will find its niche audience. The acting in the flick is a good selling point, but this movie is strong enough to stand on its own. Give it a shot if the prospect of languid pacing doesn’t scare you off, as it’s certainly worth your time.