‘A film with true grit’ says the poster for Meek’s Cutoff. I wonder which Oscar-nominated box office success the distributors are trying to cash in on? In fact, this Western could barely be further from the Coen Brothers’ recent effort if it tried: whilst both are set in 19th-century America and both contain a beardy, unreliable main character, that’s where the similarities end. Kelly Reichardt’s film is a curiously slow, sombre and elliptical take on the Western genre – perhaps even a challenge to it.
We’re in the company of a band of wandering souls, following barren ‘Oregon trail’ in search of a new life. They consist of three couples, one child and a faltering guide, Meek. They barely interact. They’re running out of water. When they come across a native American, they capture him and, realising their predicament, decide to follow him. He could be leading them to water or to ambush – either way, it’s an ending the film never reaches.
Near the beginning there’s one beautiful slow fade between two panoramic scenes when for a moment it seems as if Meek is riding his horse across the clouds. But from then on it’s all grim realism – slowly turning wheels and dusty shoes, occasionally accompanied by a score of gently creeping discordant strings. Reichardt uses a crazily narrow aspect ratio that boxes everyone into a square, indicating their entrapment even in the desert expanses. Night-time scenes are filmed in proper, obfuscating darkness.
In tone it reminded me of Archipelago: resolutely gradual, with the apparent aim being to hypnotise you into engagement with its themes and questions. It worked – but, whilst Archipelago had real comment to make, this felt like a film with which someone writing a thesis could have field day, exacting any chosen meaning out of its various weighty but open-ended acts: encounter with the native other; integration of that other; acts of faith/pioneering; and one big act of female empowerment.
In this sense it was perhaps too bare a template, too non-committal, for its own good. But I’m certainly glad I saw it. Distinctive and demanding – in other words, the opposite of what the Coens came up with.