With plenty of time to think: Meek’s Cutoff

So what is it? Feminist? Existentialist? Revisionist? Postmodern? Pointless? Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff could be any and all of these, depending entirely upon the viewer’s initial mindset. It’s certainly being touted as a feminist picture, and a good one too. But honestly, it doesn’t challenge you to think one way or another; rather, it will only reinforce the preconceptions you have, since it gives you its entire runtime to think about, rather than react to, it. Initially, I was hoping for an intelligent and, yeah, arguably boring, postmodern Western, but one with a little ingenuity, flow, and a tad more integrity. Instead we get a documentary minus a voiceover that eventually veers toward outright symbolism that damages the actors’ efforts to humanize their characters. It would be cruel to call it pointless, but it’s only honest to call it really frickin’ boring. It becomes a little insulting, too, when the subtlety that’s been working in its favor turns on you, shilling its unclear message without having the courage to go all Aranofsky-camp on you.

Now I’m not much for ism pics. Once something gets political, I usually bury my head in the sand. I can learn more from the silence and the blood rushing to my head than I can from most polemics. Much has been made of the feminist bent in Meek’s Cutoff, but aside from the spotlight centering on Michelle Williams’ Emily Tetherow and her fellow female travellers, the picture doesn’t do one thing or another to empower its women. It at least speaks in their favor, showing they can coexist with males on even ground, similar to Aliens letting Sigourney Weaver kick equal shares butt. If Meek’s Cutoff were made sixty years ago, this insight would’ve been much more profound. The film certainly sympathises with the women. Their point of view is emphasized as we sit in silent dread alongside them as the men decide everyone’s fate with indecision and embarrassingly evident fallibility. At one point the men have a nigh unhearable conversation because the camera refuses to join their little powwow. But then, Emily is the only woman to show any real initiative, so the argument sways from feminism in favor of character-driven realism. To fast forward a little, the film ends too soon (and abruptly) to make arguments in favor of its women, too.

The thing is, if you are a feminist that happens across this movie, you’ll end seeing it as a feminist picture. Same goes for existentialists (if anyone really introduces themselves that way outside of Facebook) or subscribers of any other philosophy with a reason to stumble across this movie. That’s just how it is. But hey, to cast a ballot in feminism’s favor, the casting of Paul Dano is a good move. Besides being a paragon of the young independent movie scene, he is the epitome of the ineffectual, frantic worrywart. Flimsy enough to make Jessica Simpson look like Condoleeza Rice, and minus any of Michael Cera’s dorky charm. And Michelle Williams has turned herself into an independent darling, so she’s virtually immune from criticism.

Bruce Greenwood-turned-character actor is a sight to behold, and convincing enough as long as you don’t look so hard that his presidential features start to show. Makeup must’ve realized the same thing, furnishing him with a Jimmer Negamanee from Menominee-style neck sponge that makes you wonder why the producers didn’t save a pile of cash on Wayne David Parker instead of hiding Greenwood under a costume taken out of the Smithsonian. They even could’ve just gone with a cardboard cutout of garbageman Fitch from Hi and Lois.

The film strives not to make any indelible images or arguments, but its maddeningly staged and uneventful proceedings don’t make any effort to overcompensate. Wagons enter screen right and exit screen left. Character stands then sits. Other character approaches and sits. Meek’s Cutoff has that vital indie cred, and it knows what kind of investment it’s trying to recoup, but it can’t be denied that clinging so closely to the indie formula serves as the film’s downfall. The spare scenery, the absence of music, the skeletal plot: none provoke any thought concerning the film’s contents, but rather what you could be doing instead of watching it.

Greenwood’s presence is suitably the most curious part of the picture. As the titular Meeks, he skirts in and out of shots, grumbles his opinions and tall tales, adds a craggy texture to the sere travellers and sagelands, and generally influences nothing that happens around him. He is the most enjoyably surreal character I have seen since (and a fitting antithesis to) David Thewlis’ Hospitaler in Kingdom of Heaven, another picture that asks us what happens when men see themselves in control of something higher when they are in fact at its mercy. Meeks threatens the women and their captured Native American guide when at the same time abiding by the men’s decisions, symbolic of the impotent superiority that mankind has wielded over its presumed inferiors through the ages, struggling to maintain the appearance of control. Funnily enough, at the film’s close, Meeks agrees to follow Emily’s lead. She in turn can only follow the Native American, who insultingly or not may be viewed as a force of nature rather than a human. This is when the only interesting questions and tonal shifts are raised throughout the whole picture. Can Emily take command? Will it make any difference? Hopefully the answer you reach isn’t as broad as the isms people associate with the film. Considering that Meek’s Cutoff wants nothing to do with plot development or resolution, it makes little difference what the characters do. And that’s the whole point.

In the end, what will most people see? Pretentiousness. Which is basically right. It’s neither poetic nor particularly picturesque when its makers want it to be, and I can’t say you can quote it either. Even at 90 minutes it feels like a stretch. Reichardt could have accomplished more had she not felt the need for a feature-length running time to be taken seriously, or had she been given a script with more than a few mumbled exchanges and frontier horror stories stolen straight from the history books. If it wants to wear its isms on its sleeve, then best of luck to it. It doesn’t have much else going for it.

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