"We're all playing our parts now. This was written long before we got here."
Do not expect "Meek's Cutoff" to get anything from the Academy at the end of the year, because I doubt many will be passionate enough about it to give it the light of day. It has already been pegged as the "boring film of 2011", and that is surely something of an apt description of it. After all, by unadvanced moviegoer standards, not all that much really happens. It starts with them already on their journey, and it ends with them having not finished their journey. In between them an entirety of one new character is introduced. The fascination about this film isn't these massive events, but about the intimate exchanges between person and person.
The film follows a group of settlers on the Oregon Trail, all being led by one Stephen Meek who hasn't been doing the best job thus far. Only minutes into the film, the families are debating on whether or not to hang the man. Meanwhile Meek remains rather ambiguous in character and intent, agreeing on the courses his employers choose, be it a bit reluctantly. Things really start igniting when they gain hold of a Native American resident whom Meek assumes means to brutally murder them. One of the wives, Emily Tetherow, is cautious of either character, but knows which one of them has led her more astray thus far.
Whilst "Meek's Cutoff" says very little in words, it says a great deal more through the simple construct of the landscape and the sky. Clouds move by faster with greater resolve and purpose than the settlers. The ground shows the wear and tear of many travelers past, with cracks along the ground conveying the desolation of land as well as their circumstances. When so little seems to happen from minute to minute, the audience is left to interpret so much from whatever is happening, or else nothing at all. I admit to finding greater meaning and purpose in the former. It adds such a strong layer to the already magnificent work of the cinematographer, as well as the location scout.
As far as the concrete characters are concerned, most of them fall subject to the sheer strength and physicality of the land. They're admittedly lost in the narrative, while others play a much larger and more important role. The only three characters you'll remember vividly before the end are the Native, Meek, and Miss Tetherow. Quite often the native is a simple reflection of our audience's interpretation of the followers. He does enter the fray simply watching our settlers, so in many ways he is the representation of us. It's just a matter of what the settlers will listen to and truly understand or care about.
As for Mr. Meek, played by Bruce Greenwood, he is quite an ambiguous sort of character, as it's uncertain if he's just bullheaded or if he seriously means this group harm. The answer is honestly quite irrelevant, as his character is deeply defined in broad strokes either way. Somehow both persona aid themselves to this picture, and have a way of coexisting. Michelle Williams' Emily Tetherow is the most strongly and surely drawn out character on display here. Any other actress might have fallen prey to scrutiny against the landscape, but Williams has a definite strength and will that make the standoffs between her and Meek so intense.
There is one particular scene in the final stretch of the film that plays so intensely, not only because it's among the most massive things to happen in the film, but because Greenwood and Williams have such a strong conflictive chemistry going on. In any case, some may be left out in the cold by the ambiguity of the ending. The strong imagery of a single tree serves as either a sign of assurance for some, or despair for others. If all this has seemed evasive, indecisive, or just plain scatterbrained, you can trust the film is anything but. It's very much about the placement of trust in desperate times.
Director Kelly Reichardt has such a strong hold over the story she is telling, and you can tell that through every precise movement of the film. From sound design, to cinematography, to location, to editing, everything is in assistance of a vision. Not a single sight, sound, or feeling veers off of the film's certain course. Such fabrication and construction is the work of a focused craftsman (or craftswoman as the case is). At times it reminds me of the focus behind "There Will Be Blood", before it began to spin off the hinges a bit towards the close of the second hour. "Meek's Cutoff" proves to be far more economically paced and timed. If it seems like it's going on for a while, remember that it's only 98 minutes long, but with such intent and rich detail in every minute, how is that a complaint?