Meek's Cutoff - DVD Review

'what would happen if someone in the mumblecore movement made a Western'

Meek's Cutoff is what would happen if someone in the mumblecore movement made a Western. All of the hallmarks are here. The dialogue is - excuse the literal interpretation - often mumbled or delivered away from the camera, so that we only catch snippets of the conversation. The narrative drive from start to finish is driven almost entirely by character and by simple situational happenstance: in this case a group of pilgrims are travelling across the Oregon desert, led my a man who may or may not know the way. The focus is firmly on the realism of the situation, everything feels very naturalistic, there's a lack of contrived stylisation or plot manipulation via grandiose events. The pilgrims travel in harsh conditions, being forced to face up to the realities of their journey.

For large swathes of the story, despite not a whole lot happening, Meek's Cutoff is a charming and enjoyable experience. The dedication by director Kelly Reichardt to showing how she feels The West was really won is admirable and the change of pace in this from the average film in the genre is welcome. This isn't a film where the evil presence is conquered by men on horseback firing six shooters into the air.

In fact, the conflict between these two ideas (that of the traditional Western and of Reichardt's realist West) is typified by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Meek is an old school cowboy who has apparently led the pilgrims off the established trail with the promise of a shortcut which he then fails to find. I say 'apparently' because the explanation of this took place during one of the more mumbly periods and I couldn't tell what was specifically being said but, official synopsis to the rescue, this appears to be what has transpired just prior to the film's opening. This being established, Reichardt's West is symbolised by Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), the backbone of the group and a dedicated worker who consistently eschews Meek's assertions that violence is the answer.

The problem with this is that the conflict between Meek and Emily never develops any further. It comes to a head, sure (in a scene which, bizarrely, plays out in full on the animated DVD menu), but that isn't the same as changing. Meek somewhat grudgingly respects Emily. Emily hates Meek and the ideas he stands for. That much is clear from about fifteen minutes into the film. The rest of the intrigue is reliant on a character who arrives roughly one third in and although he, Emily and Meek have your investment to a point, the other players in the piece (including the talented Zoe Kazan and the more-than-welcome Will Patton) never do. They're just anonymous wanderers in the desert with nothing to make you care about them, spouting some mumbled dialogue which seems as detached from the World as they are.

Look further...

'boxed-in and isolated from convention… but meek? It takes bravery to be this boring' - kinnemaniac


  1. I hadn't thought of the mumblecore analogy - pretty good catch. I think this film brings a bit more to the table than titles like PLEASE GIVE or CYRUS, but I certainly see it now that you mention it and hadn't thought of it that way before.

    I think I liked this one a little more than you did, and that opinion of the film might climb even higher when I can get my mitts on a blu-ray and watch it again. My screening was projected too dark, so all of those campfire scenes were literally pitch black.

    Nice post!

  2. I'll be interested to hear if your re-watch improves it, particularly with regard to the lighting, because I couldn't see bloody anything during the camp fire scenes so I wonder how much that was down to the projection and how much that's down to Reichardt's dedication to realism (I'm assuming they were shot with natural light only). Glad you enjoyed it.