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Meek’s Cutoff (2011)

This review was originally published at Filmwell.

This is the best I can do translating the barely legible notes I made, and completing sentence fragments I scribbled, in a darkened theatre during a screening of Kelly Reichardt’s film Meek’s Cutoff:

  • “Dry.” That’s how the film feels. Muted colors, in an area where there is no alternative — Eastern Oregon. Nothing interesting or promising on any horizon.
  • Characters – Three families with all of their belongings in covered wagons on an 1845 quest westward into Oregon. Their guide, Stephen Meek, a man whose head looks more like tumbleweed than a head. The native who kindles their fears and prejudice, but who may represent their only hope of finding water.
  • In four fast years, Michelle Williams has become one of the most interesting and versatile actresses. Land of Plenty. I’m Not There. Shutter Island. Synecdoche, New York. Wendy and Lucy. Blue Valentine. And now, Meek’s Cutoff. If there’s a thread that unites those performances, it’s an undercurrent of sadness and loss, made all the more affecting when we catch glimpses of a childlike charisma that adulthood seems to have squelched. She seems well cast to play Marilyn Monroe. Glad she’ll be Glinda the Good Witch in the upcoming Oz movie; it’ll give her a break from playing Raw Need. I hope it’s worthy of her.
  • Has there ever been a Western that gave such thoughtful, respectful attention to the women of the Wild West?
  • How many of us know, in adulthood, what it really means to trust anyone the way that the pioneers had to trust each other and especially their guides?
  • I’d be hard-pressed to think of films that are so willing to give screen time to the hard work of survival. Munyurangabo comes to mind – the family tilling the ground. But even Danny Boyle, proclaiming to have made a movie about one man’s quest for survival (127 Hours), didn’t have the guts to deliver a sense of the weight of time involved, or the tedium of the tasks required.
  • In Westerns, strength has usually been portrayed as quickness with a gun, courage in fighting “savages,” wrestling wild animals, and glamorous machismo. In Cutoff, strength is found in the restraint, patience, perseverance, and compassion of the women. Meanwhile, Meek, the travelers’ probably-insane guide, talks like the iconic Western hero, and in doing so he sounds like a lying fool. The men listen to him like sheep dumb enough to follow an animal who’s gone mad. Meanwhile, Emily Tetherow stares lasers into him, her bullshit detector turned up to “11.”
  • The relentless sound of the squeaky wheel on that covered wagon is the saddest sound in the world. And it conveys that the wheels are about to come off more than just the wagons.
  • Nice to see Will Patton in such a prominent role.
  • Paul Dano was born with that face to play characters who live in hard lands in hard times. Someday, he’ll be cast as a survivor during the Great Depression. He looks like he stepped out of an archival photograph. He fits right in here.
  • Apparently Bruce Greenwood’s talents have been squandered on straight-laced characters. He’s great as the crazy old coot with ragged Walt Whitman beard.
  • In spite of all of the money and manpower that Hollywood invests in special effects spectacle, I rarely feel the heart-in-my-throat suspense that I feel as Reichardt’s characters send a covered wagon down a steep hill, slowing its descent by gripping a single strand of rope. The travelers’ survival probably depends on that feeble thread. The annoying sound of the wagon’s squeaky wheel has prepared us to feel the fragility of this endeavor.
  • Meeks asks Emily, “How’s your friend?” “About the same as the rest of us, I’d say. Hungry. Thirsty.”
  • But is Emily Tetherow really so kindhearted in the generosity that she shows to the native? Or is she just bargaining, desperately, for her life?
  • The question isn’t “Will they survive?” The questions are, “In whom do they place their trust, and why? Does it matter? If they do survive, what will have made the difference? Who will they have to thank? And will they still have any honor or dignity left to make us thankful they’ve survived?”
  • In such circumstances, what do words like “lost” and “civilized” and “savage” really mean?
  • The prominence of hymns in this film reminds me of their prominence in True Grit, a film that has more in common with this one than I’d expected. In True Grit, it was “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” Here it’s “Nearer My God to Thee.” The more their plans are spoiled, the more their necessities are spent, the more dependent they realize they are. Faith in a loving God seems crazy in these circumstances, but no crazier than faith in their own abilities. Everything they do is a wager.
  • Remember Babies, where we saw mothers teaching their toddlers a mantra about how Mother Nature will take care of them? What a joke.
  • I don’t know that a movie has ever made me so thirsty. For water and whiskey.
  • Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is supposed to be about the tension between “the way of nature” and “the way of grace.” Will all of his sumptuous cinematography and attention to the natural world deliver such a visceral sense of the tension between those two forces? I’ll be surprised.
  • Good lord, what an ending. I haven’t heard a gasp from an audience like that since John Sayles’ Limbo.
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Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet

Novelist and critic Jeffrey Overstreet teaches writing (Seattle Pacific University) and film studies (Northwest University and Houston Baptist University). He's written a memoir of moviegoing and faith (Through a Screen Darkly, Baker, 2007) and a fantasy series that begins with Auralia's Colors (The Auralia Thread, Random House, 2007-11). He's worked since 2001 as a film critic and columnist at Christianity Today, and he's been a regular contributor to Image, Paste, and Christ & Pop Culture. His writing has been recognized by The New Yorker and The Seattle Times. He regularly speaks at universities, conferences, and churches in the U.S. and abroad. Want to invite him to teach or speak? Email