[With Meek's Cutoff now screening at Sundance we re-visit Aaron's earlier review from the New York Film Festival.]
There is something deeply unsettling about Meek's Cutoff, a haunting feeling that grows with time, reaching back to the outset and tormenting the process. What potentially stands as a film marred in soporific doldrums is instilled with a beatific tenuity by Kelly Reichardt. The minimalist grace and modicum of language that characterizes her work once again is put to use, telling the tale of settlers attempting to move west in the mid-1800s, lost along the Oregon Trail.
Entrenched in long silences the film is unconcerned with anything outside of the settlers and nature; no contrived obstacles or deterrence to get in the way. The landscapes filled with the majestic mid-west at times recall Days of Heaven's tawny beauty, though are so varied in texture as to make the plains appear a wondrous interminable labyrinth, a telluric canvas for the settler's exertion.
Three couples, one with child, and a guide wander the Great Plains in search of water and the way west. The guide, a vain loon, whose direction has proved less than profitable, marvelously played by Bruce Greenwood, fills the night with vulgar folk-tales and the days with reassurances about his competency. The couples, each with their own proclivities, one meek and prone to the bible, another tenacious and self-determined, make do.
The situation gradually progresses towards the inevitable until a final moment of surrealistic horror broadens the earthen figures to a grander expression of desperation; the prairie no longer just terrain but a symbol of our eternal conflict and repression.Reichardt's willingness to forgo didactic cues imparts, both here and in previous work, an actuality whose gravity of choice and character weighs heavier than the easier, emotional beguilement present in most mainstream cinema. Meek's Cutoff is a departure for Reichardt in terms of situation and scope but her naturalistic style never wavers, the same introspective brevity found in Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy has only gotten stronger.