Criterion Prediction #108: Meek’s Cutoff, by Alexander Miller
Title: Meek’s Cutoff
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson
Synopsis: Settlers contend with life on the trail as they make their way to Oregon in 1845. Matters are complicated when their seemingly-confident tracker, Stephen Meek (Greenwood), leads them astray.
Critique: It’s difficult to land on a favorite genre, but westerns are my default contender for the title, and it’s movies like Meek’s Cutoff that substantiate that claim. The mythology of the frontier is the stuff of classics and is distinctly specific to our perception of the west. However, the range for revision is massive; and in this case, Kelly Reichardt not only shows her ability to transcend genres but excel in making an original revisionist western.
While her fine-tuned eye and ear for fluid realism power her contemporary features, she eases seamlessly into the 19th century. Reichardt doesn’t get lost in recreating the period. It fuels her ability to build strong characters, understated dialogue, and subtly compelling conflict. The stakes are life and death, but the urgency is treated with a matter-of-factness enlivened by the puritanical rhetoric, there’s a moderate intensity that feels like it’s emanating from the repressive culture of the settlers.
Michelle Williams (a familiar face in the director’s repertoire) is a dominant presence as always. Veteran character actor Bruce Greenwood, though barely recognizable has a grizzled, squirrelly quality as Stephen Meek. It feels like he’s having fun as a character that seems out of time, even for the 19th century.
The focal point in Meek’s Cutoff are the three women. Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, and Zoe Kazan are essential in making this a revisionist western. /instead of the commonly relegated and ancillary “wife roles,” these color-coded voices of reason against the incompetent tracker and indecisive husbands.
Reichardt’s interpretation feels like it’s guided by respect for the genre while regrouping the conventions and making a unique narrative. The boxy 1.33:1 aspect ratio challenges the vastness of the landscape against the tension of the psychological tumult. What Reichardt achieves is a victory over the more heady interpretations of the western maintaining authorship in a pedigreed genre without bearing contention toward the source material.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: It’s been a long wait, but Kelly Reichardt made it into The Criterion Collection this year with her latest film Certain Women! Personally, I thought it would be her 2006 film Old Joy, or 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, but was pleasantly surprised to see her most recent effort don a spine number. Any of these movies stand on their own merits as “Criterion qualifiers”, but introducing Meek’s Cutoff to a wider audience might be a good point of contrast following the release of Certain Women.