Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Meek's Cutoff (2010)

***NOTE: The following analysis/review may contain MILD SPOILERS regarding some detail in the film, but not to the extent of making the film viewing experience any lesser.***

Now this one was a big surprise, a pleasant one at that, for it surpassed all expectations. Kelly Reichardt's "Meek's Cutoff" (2010) is a refreshingly different and original American indie. When you know you are watching a film from the 'western' genre, you would expect action and gun violence, but hell...there must be about two shots fired in this film, and only in the air if you take it from the audiences' perspective.  

It would be misleading to even call it a 'western' in fact. That probably explains the low score on popular film websites such as IMDB too. Western film freaks did not get what they bargained for. Although by definition a western is a film that has stories set in the 19th century American old west, the term has become synonymous with gunslinging cowboys making stylish moves, horses, damsels in distress, heroic badassery, lots of poetic, memorable dialog, theatrical performances and unreal action among other things.

But just because "Meek's Cutoff" has a bunch of guys with hats, guns and horses, that need not make it a 'western' in the more popular sense. It would be more fair to treat it as an American indie meditative drama.

Devoid of any flamboyant score, or cool looking cowboys making epic entries, this is a realistic film pigeonholed in a genre that mostly depicted unrealistic romanticism. There's just this small group, consisting of three humble looking couples en route to somewhere. Where they came from, what their destination is, is unknown. All we know in the first few frames is that they appear lost. 

The era is circa 1840s, and the group is following a man by the name of Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) who has been hired by them to lead them across a rough terrain across the Oregon trail. It is a route that mostly seems to consist of vast empty, barren desert landscapes, dirt, grime, and a dearth of water! 

Doubt is slowly sinking in, and the stronger voice of the otherwise suppressed womenfolk, Mrs. Tetherow (Michelle Williams in a splendid act) begins to get skeptical about the credibility of Meek as an able guide. But danger lurks somewhere not far away in the form of brutal Red Indians who are known to be animals, torturing their victims. It is a matter of time before Mrs. Tetherow spots a Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux), who is later captured by the men. The journey as they know it would never be the same again, as dynamics shift and the helm gradually changes hands.

Reichardt's film is aesthetically brilliant with some great sights to behold, accompanied by gorgeous cinematography and an eerie score that spells death and danger every little time it fills your ears. It is a minimalist setting, with a minimal number of people trapped in the 4:3 aspect ratio frame (a deliberate choice, symbolically relevant and also a nod to the older popular westerns), sparse, vague dialog for the most part and a languid pace that is apt to showcase the excruciatingly long and seemingly endless journey undertaken by our travelers. One can actually feel the fatigue, the thirst, the hopelessness experienced by these hapless beings. In spite of the seemingly glacial pace though, the proceedings are tense as curiosity progressively mounts.

Despite the lack of a neatly developed plot or characterization, and not much of a narrative to speak of, "Meek's cutoff" is a magnificent canvas that packs in heavy thematic material and some substantial food for thought. For one, it a fantastic study of trust (or lack thereof), fear, prejudice, pessimism, optimism and doubt. When it appears that the once confident Meek is just shooting in the dark, Mrs. Tetherow is among the first to trust a local, an Indian, who has a reputation for being dangerous, and who is incapable of communicating with the gang. Yet, some inner voice tells her that only this Indian will show her the way to a better land where she will find food and water. 

And hence she makes every effort to win his favour, despite never being certain if he has even understood what they want from him. Maybe it is that general feeling; there is always an inherent curiosity of the unknown. In a deliberate move, the spoken words of the Indian in his language are not translated in subtitles. This is to make us viewers feel the language barrier and the futility of any communication with him. Yet there is hope that he will lead them to a better destination. Of course, not all of the travelers are confident about this. Some of them express strong disapproval, claim that the Indian will probably lead them to his people instead and they will all be massacred!

It wouldn't be wrong to say that the travelers' journey to an unpredictable future symbolizes man's eternal quest for utopia. That endless odyssey to a promised land led by a bearded guide, a biblical figure perhaps, who has the faith of some and mistrust of others. Emily Tetherow's trust is dwindling and she is losing her faith in this figure, while the others are blindly following him, uncertain of their future. In such a circumstance, she chooses to trust the Indian who is notorious for being a devil. Meek warns something to the effect that they have no idea what awaits them on the other side, perhaps more heathens of his kind, and hence to not trust him. One amazing visual cross fade across scenes almost shows Meek at a distance and as the scene shifts to the next, his image appears to be floating across the sky; a deliberate move, perhaps, on the director's part to stress upon the biblical connection of the character in question!

What lies beyond, no one knows. What path to take, who to trust is ultimately determined by the individual's faith and personal judgement, much like the choice of what religion to embrace, if at all!

In one scene, a small piece of gold is found and a couple of people are overjoyed. "Well, you can't drink it", says Mr. Tetherow (Will Patton). Perhaps it was the devil's temptation that they manage to overcome and keep going.

There are strong feminist undercurrents in "Meek's Cutoff". Several scenes highlight the status of women at the time, like how they are kept out of important decision making. In one key scene, the women look to their husbands and struggle to hear what they are saying, and so does the viewer, for the dialog is almost drowned out for the entire duration when the men decide upon what direction to follow. The drowning out of dialog is intentional, for the filmmaker wants the audiences to feel the frustration of the ladies at not being able to catch the plan of action as it gets made. But in a dramatic turn of events, the leader Meek eventually finds that he is indeed meek and bows down to the command of Mrs. Tetherow, who takes control and establishes that she means business! 

Emily Tetherow decides to stick with the Indian and urges the group to follow. She believes that she has won his favour by feeding him and helping him; that kindness begets kindness. As the group march toward their uncertain fate, a solitary tree with greens is spotted along the way. Could it be the tree of life? How did it stand there in the barren land without water? The tree then, symbolises hope. It means one should always follow their heart and stick to their guns. Emily turns to the Indian with a look of hope that he will take her there where there is happiness. The viewer keeps looking at the screen and hopes that the Indian really has become compassionate toward these people and will eventually save them from certain death. 

Films like "Meek's Cutoff" don't come out very often. About time we all checked this little gem out and spread the word. 

Score: 9/10


  1. Finally watched it... and I must say that I am greatly impressed by the movie's minimalist yet powerful story and structure!!! I definitely owe you one for recommending this underrated gem.

    1. Thanks Murtaza...glad you liked. When do we see your review of this? :)