Meek’s Cutoff has an esteemed cast, an original premise, and laudable goals. All of this is obscured, however, by the approach director Kelly Reichardt took in making it. As a story about settlers struggling to reach Oregon, the film concentrates far too much on the drudgery and frustration of the experience, severely trying the viewer’s patience.
The settler party is led by Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton) and guided by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Despite Meek’s inability to find fresh water, let alone a trail, only Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) is able to express her lack of faith in the mountain man. When the group captures an Indian (Rod Rondeaux), the group must decide whether or not to put their survival in his hands.
Meek’s Cutoff’s overriding theme is the lack of agency given to women in this historical place and time. Conversations between the men are filmed from a distance, the sound low, while the women watch. At a crucial point, the men vote on a decision and exclude the women (who work as hard as the men) as a matter of course. Emily refuses passivity, however, taking action wherever possible. She can handle a gun and challenge Meek in an argument. She repairs the Indian’s shoes to try and obligate him to her. Eventually, she will have the final say over the Indian’s life.
In all of this, Meek’s Cutoff is an intriguing film. More intriguingly still, it keeps the race relations involved in this situation complex and on edge. Emily may need the Indian, but that doesn’t stop her from having contempt for him. Meanwhile, his trustworthiness remains in question. Some of his dialogue, when translated, gives clues about his intentions, but even then, we don’t know if this is a true alliance.
The film has little dialogue, distancing the viewer. Scenes that give further background to the characters appear briefly in a making-of featurette, but most of these did not make the final cut. Many scenes simply show the settlers walking, with a wagon wheel emitting a continual, irritating squeak.
Meek’s Cutoff has a strong sense of realism, and this sometimes adds to the storytelling. When Emily first sees the Indian and shoots into the air to summon the men, the time it takes her to reload adds tension to the moment. Similarly, the process whereby the settlers belay their wagons down an incline is painfully slow and difficult, with the cost of failure high. This is as exciting as Meek’s Cutoff gets, however. Want to watch the likes of Williams, Greenwood, Shirley Henderson and Paul Dano cook, sew and move wagons about? That’s mostly what this film is.
The viewer’s time could be paid off if the film had a conclusive ending. Conversely, its final ambiguity could be worthwhile if all that proceeded it had some sense of dynamism. As it stands, however, Meek’s Cutoff offers little reward and leaves a sense of wasted possibilities.