I guess the first question people usually ask when discussing a film is, “what is it about?” Well I’m here to tell you that Meek’s Cutoff, the new film directed by Kelly Reichardt, is not really about anything. Or at least, not anything interesting. But I’m also here to tell you that, in this case, that might not matter.
Meek’s Cutoff is a movie that barely seems written. And that’s a mercy at times, since the actual written dialogue and plot have little of interest to offer. But we’re not here for story, or even, really, characters. We’re here for a feeling, to be lost in this moviegoing experience just as thoroughly as the characters on screen are lost in the expansive dessert. In that sense, the film is pretty hugely successful.
The basic plot is that a train of settlers is headed west to start a new life. They’re being led by a guide named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who looks basically like a cartoon of himself. The traveling party includes the stalwart Emily (Michelle Williams) and her husband, and a bunch of other characters that the film seems really uninterested in (Paul Dano! Zoe Kazan! Etcetera!).
Yet all is not well within the ragtag bunch: the traveling party’s starting to lose faith in their guide, and every decision they make is a battle between Meek’s rough-and-tumble ‘Merican self-preservation and the remaining travelers’ more measured approach (which is later touched with Emily’s compassionate influence). The tension between these two world-views reaches its peak when the group captures an indian (Rod Rondeaux, the best, most interesting performance in the film) just as they’re running out of water and they need to decide what to do with him.
The minimal character and story beats are pretty banal and rote. Williams’s Emily is just a shade too kind-hearted and humanistic to be interesting, and Meek himself is a battle-hardened grunt, no more captivating than a kill-em-all soldier in a war film (he even seems within inches of screaming “game over, man!” at one point).
The minimalist story lacks the dynamism necessary to actually qualify as anything more than a sketch, but even that sketch is kind of bland. And the themes of cultural awareness, fate, and humanism sometimes feel like they’re more draped over the film than demonstrated by it. (Paul Dano’s character carves the word “LOST” into a log in an early scene, which is a moment so telegraphed that it’s pretty clear very early in the film that we’re not here for the subtlety of the story or the themes.)
In effect, the film wanders through the same territory that so many science fiction films have explored equally well: an alien being captured by a band of desperate colonists, the communication barriers demarcating impassable cultural gulfs, the mistrust inherent in first contact, and the semi-redemption brought about by our right-minded protagonist. Meek’s Cutoff has just a glimmer running through it of all of these well-trod story elements.
But even if it doesn’t entirely hold together as a story or a character study, Meek’s Cutoff is certainly a rousing success as a mood piece. Even as it feels like it’s dragging its way towards its bafflingly slight conclusion, the film’s sense of isolation and confusion is always pitch perfect. And that’s enough for now. But it also has me excited to see what Reichardt would do if she actually had something important to say.