Meek’s Cutoff crosses the line between deliberately methodical and downright tedious far more often than I would have liked. The film is in many ways very well-crafted (although not perfectly so). However, it’s also far too static and impersonal. Great movies don’t necessarily have to be pleasant to watch, but they do need to be fascinating. Kelly Richardt’s movie certainly isn’t the former. The main problem is that it’s also rarely the latter, with the camerawork at times reflecting the story in the way it’s always standing still. There’s little to no forward momentum. This is perhaps deliberate considering the nature of the plot. We’re in the same boat as the film’s settlers, who are trapped in open space. The trouble is that this doesn’t make for a very compelling movie. Frankly, it barely even makes for a semi-compelling one.
The biggest problem is this: if we are indeed to be in the same boat as the settlers, it’s imperative that we engage with them. It’s not necessary to like them, but without a real investment in their fate a film such as this doesn’t work. And Meek’s Cutoff mostly fails in giving us that sort of an investment. Its characters and performances just don’t do a particularly great job of drawing the viewer in, with of couple of exceptions. One of them is Michelle Williams as Emily, a member of a small group of people heading for Oregon that strayed from the path on the advice of their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, in the film’s other major standout performance). There are whisperings that Meek may have led them off course deliberately, and early in the movie the men are seen debating whether or not to hang him. They decide not to, but the tension lingers throughout the movie’s hour and forty-two minute run time: an effective touch in a film that could have used more of them.
For her part, Williams does fantastic work. She portrays Emily’s stoic determination perfectly, while at the same time leaving just enough room for the character’s fear at their gradually worsening circumstances. And the result is one of the few characters in Meek’s Cutoff to truly feel human. The film is worth watching for her performance alone, which is a good thing because it’s also just about the only thing to remain consistently good throughout this very problematic work. The sequences where she spars with Greenwood’s Meek are the movie’s high points. Everything else is highly uneven and often extremely frustrating, most notably the way many scenes are shot.
Particularly troublesome is the lighting in the nighttime sequences, or more particularly the lack of it. Perhaps it had something to do with my screen or the way it was presented on Netflix streaming*, but I felt most of these scenes were lit very poorly (generally by a single dim and flickering flame), to the point where it’s very difficult to see anything unfolding on screen. Glimpsing any sort of nuances in the actors’ faces is virtually impossible. This is likely an admirable attempt to add to the movie’s atmosphere, but in practice it soon becomes an exercise in irritation. One obvious example is a scene in which Emily talks to her husband, where she’s clearly visible while he’s completely obscured by shadow. Certainly shadows have been used effectively in many movies, but simply cloaking characters in darkness doesn’t get it done.
The sequences that take place in daylight fare somewhat better. While the stationary nature of many of the shots (the camera in a given sequence rarely moves, content to let our eyes track the characters across the screen) eventually grows wearisome, it does do a fantastic job of showing just how small this group is compared to the immense area they’re traversing, thanks in large part to the breathtaking scenery. But it’s not enough considering how repetitive and uninteresting the camerawork is, and in the end only serves to further the lack of engagement with the main story that is Meek’s Cutoff’s ultimate failing. Director Kelly Reichardt makes an effort to include some moments that are more intimate, but many of these are the poorly lit night sequences already discussed, and others mainly feature the settlers looking grim as they continue to walk. Aside from Emily, we don’t truly feel their desperation in the way we need to, at least not until the final half hour (which for what it’s worth does contain some superb material).
The movie’s ultimate ending is another matter altogether, and one I won’t go into in this spoiler-free review, although I’ll be happy to discuss it in the comments with anyone who’s seen the film. Suffice to say that it’s as pathetic a conclusion as I can remember witnessing, and serves to further the case that this just isn’t a very strong motion picture. Meek’s Cutoff has a few good features and one fantastic performance at its center, but in the end it’s an empty film without any real intrigue or depth, and a rather boring one at that.
* I doubt this, truthfully, but it’s a possible explanation. If you watched the film on a computer through Netflix, I’d love to hear what your experience was.