Meek’s Cutoff

In space noone can hear you scream, we all know that. But how about the deserts or similar desolate areas? Meek’s Cutoff, made in 2010 but released in the Low Countries no sooner than 2012, offers us just that, an insight into the life of a group of pioneers. Their guide, Meek, promised them he knew a shortcut to an area full of wealth. The opening shot of the movie, the pioneer women wading through a river with caged birds on their heads, immediately shows that the trip may be lots of things, but definitely pleasant. However, does that mean the film doesn’t make for compelling viewing? It all depends on your definition of ‘compelling’. Quite a number of reviewers and bloggers worldwide slagged it off for its lack of entertainment. Then again, it’s a film about a group of rough people (otherwise, they wouldn’t have gone off their initial trail for this cutoff) who are stuck in desolate areas for days and days, with almost no certainty of the next time they’ll get to water. That’s the synopsis, now wouldn’t Meek’s Cutoff be improved if suddenly the entire cast would burst into a song and dance routine, preferably a musical version of Smells Like Teen Spirit? “Here we are now, entertain us.”

The big name in the cast is Michelle Williams and compared to this film, another of her movies, Blue Valentine, becomes a romcom. Meek’s Cutoff is bleak, forcing you to watch a small group of people turn from fearless pioneers into frightened little people. Hope may be around the next corner, or not. More often not, by the way. Does their guide, Meek, know the area or is he just a boaster? If Meek is out of his depth, will the group become leaderless? Adding to the despair, is the lack of water and the sudden and shocking encounter between Williams’s character and an Indian. For some reason, the Indian follows the group and after a while he’s caught. This adds to the conflicts as the group isn’t unanimous on what to do with their prisoner.

If you’re wondering where that all leads to, the answer is a bit unpleasant: Meek’s Cutoff doesn’t give an answer, the film has an open ending. It’s up to you to interpret the final scenes and look (attentively) for details. The Indian doesn’t know English and therefore what he’s muttering is not understood by the group. Helpfully, his words aren’t subtitled. It adds to the lack of references, which is a great way to sum the movie up. You’re about as lost as the pioneers. What we do know is that the Indian likes to carve messages on the rocks. Some travellers think this is a sign to his tribe and that they’re about to be lynched. However, one pioneer himself left the word “Lost” behind earlier in the movie, so maybe that’s what the Indian is communicating as well. Yet, what adds to the mystery is that, unlike the pioneers, observant viewers may spot other messages in the background. What does it all mean? Feel free to share your comments below or send a postcard to the usual address for nostalgic reasons.

The internet, that widely available source of information, does not help Meek’s Cutoff. The incomprehensible language has been translated by surfers and others commented on how historically and geographically correct the film is, which means you can find out for yourself whether the group will find a way or not. Whether you want to know that information is up to you and that’s the choice director Kelly Reinhardt leaves you. That this was done on purpose is evident in the way the film unrolls. Less clear, at least to me, is why the film was restricted to 1.33:1 in a time when widescreen has even become standard on television and computers. For me, widescreen would have added more background (and therefore desolation) but this way you’re closer on the skin of the pioneers.

Don’t expect to be entertained by this film. But watch it if you’re in the mood for “raggedy” and “rough”.

7.5/10

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