Wednesday 13 November 2019

Movies: Meek's cutoff ****


Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Though it's set in the wilds of Oregon in the mid-19th century, describing Meek's Cutoff as a western is a bit of a stretch. It has guns and cowboy hats and Indians (well, one Indian), but so little happens that fans of the genre might go away disappointed.

In fact, not a single shot is fired in anger, for director Kelly Reichardt is more interested in human nature than action. In two previous films set in present-day Oregon, Reichardt has memorably explored the predicaments of little people lost in that vast western landscape. And, in Meek's Cutoff, she reimagines the experiences of the first white settlers to set foot in the rugged state.

Reichardt's recurring muse Michelle Williams plays Emily Tetherow, a young woman who has set out with her husband Soloman (Will Patton) to find their own slice of heaven in the uninhabited west. They and two other couples have split from a larger group of settlers, led by a grizzled guide called Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Meek claimed he knew the area like the back of his hand, but within a few days it becomes clear that they're lost in a barren landscape with an ever-dwindling water supply.

With his long hair and calfskin duds, Meek certainly looks the part, but he's a spoofer, a blustering shell of a man who won't admit that he's way out of his depth. In the wild, remorseless landscape, Emily and the other settlers seem even more out of place.

One morning Emily is washing clothes when she's confronted by a Native American. He flees but Meek and Soloman chase him. When they capture him Meek is all for killing the "heathen" on the spot, but Emily and Soloman will not tolerate this, and so the bemused Indian becomes their prisoner. After Emily shows him small kindnesses, he develops a respect for her, and eventually the group are forced to accept him as their guide. But no one knows if the Indian is leading them to water or into a trap.

Meek's Cutoff dramatises the fundamental confrontation between white man and native that would become an enduring stain on America's history. The film's stately pace will definitely not be for everyone, and neither will its inconclusive ending, but it brilliantly evokes the bravery and folly of the early settlers, and their fundamental ignorance of the country they were staking a claim to.

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