I’ve become quite a fan of modern Westerns recently and have really enjoyed the likes of The Assassination of Jesse James, There Will Be Blood and True Grit amongst others. Meek’s Cutoff shares little with those films though other than its time in history and genre. This is a film about the isolation of the old west and the physical and mental pain that one must go through in order to continue the expansion west. Unlike most other Westerns, this is also told from mostly the female perspective.
The opening five or so minutes of the film are presented without dialogue. We watch as the settlers, who number around seven, perform tasks around their makeshift camp and then cross a deep river, holding their possessions high above their head. While the men gather to discuss their next move, the women watch on, unable to provide their input and continue with the tasks of cooking and washing. Even though nothing is said it sets up the film very neatly. We immediately understand that these people are totally isolated and not entirely sure where they are or where they are going. We understand the basic roles of the characters i.e. the women have no say in their destiny and are responsible for the chores associated with living on the move.
When the dialogue does begin there is little of it and it mainly concerns the lack of supplies and worries regarding the expedition. Queries are raised by the women, most notably by Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), the young wife of an older widower. Her concerns are mostly brushed aside but as the film progresses she begins to exert more authority on the group before becoming its de-facto leader in all but name. We learn little of the back story of the characters and can only guess as to what made them undertake such a dangerous journey. One of the women is heavily pregnant but this isn’t even mentioned and it wasn’t until very late on that I actually noticed.
The acting is generally fine but I didn’t really notice the actors. The cast are usually hidden under bonnets, hats and frowns and as I mentioned previously you never get to know them. Bruce Greenwood is good as the hard nosed and arrogant Meek and Michelle Williams shines as Tetherow. The remainder of the cast though fine are a little forgettable but no one is actually bad.
The film takes a very considered pace and things unfold very slowly (if at all). The pace increases slightly towards the half way mark when a native Indian character is introduced. This also marks a shift in the group dynamic as Williams’ character is listened to for the first time. She attempts to communicate with the man in a different way to the others and realises that by making him owe her, he is more likely to help her later.
Although the pacing bought out how the isolation and desolation of the group, at times it just felt dull. It was nice to see the beautiful desert pass by and the cut scenes of sunrises, sunsets and vistas were pretty but I longed for something more. Unlike The Way Back which has similar themes there is no action and I could have done with some to liven things up. When you boil it down, you’re basically watching seven or eight people walk across a desert, not saying much and looking grumpy.