Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Meek's Cutoff Is A Western Deconstruction Like No Other

As Meek's Cutoff opens, director Kelly Reichardt makes it apparent this movie will be adhering to a  transcendentalism style of filmmaking. Some of the core tenants of this filmmaking style, namely prolonged extended takes concentrated on minimal activity, turn out to be a perfect way to capture the experiences of the lead characters of Meek's Cutoff as they gradually make their way across the American frontier to an unspecified locale that's supposed to provide them all with prosperous riches. This is a journey that's arduous and slow with little in the way of actual progress to speak of so it's fitting that Reichardt opts to capture this voyage in a filming style that places an emphasis on slower pacing and minimalism.

The Meek of the title is Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a gruff experienced traveler who is leading this expedition and routinely comes into conflict with the films soft-spoken but firm protagonist, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams). Everyone in this traveling party is already facing all kinds of turmoil before the sudden arrival of a Native American known only as The Cayuse (Rod Rondeaux) upends things further. Half of the group, particularly Meek, wants to kill The Cayuse right away but the other half that wants to use The Cayuse to guide them through the rest of their perilous journey ends up winning the argument. As they keep on moving towards an uncertain destination, Emily and The Cayuse become closer while the dynamic between Emily and Meek becomes only more frayed.

Post-modern deconstructions of Westerns are a dime-a-dozen in a post-Unforgiven world but Meek's Cutoff easily stands out in a crowded field in countless ways, including in the ruthless evisceration it gives to the stock Western hero in the form of Stephen Meek. A grizzled old white guy with extensive experience in leading expeditions and even more experience in slaughtering indigenous American citizens, it's easy to see this character being the protagonist of an earlier Western, perhaps even one that John Wayne would have played in the 1950s. But in the hands of Meek's Cutoff, Stephen Meek isn't a classical Western hero, rather, he's like a Western version of Immortan Joe, a human embodiment and critique of specifically white male entitlement.

Instead of being depicted as consistently heroic in spite of his gruffness, Jonathan Raymond's script has Meek going on extensive rambling diatribes about how he's convinced he alone knows what defines women or about how he killed unarmed men in his past. Meek puts on the air of being an all-knowing figure who can bring this group to salvation but in reality, he's a bloodthirsty fool who brings them only to greater levels of danger. Whereas so many classic Westerns portray white male heroes as the only ones who can bring order to the lawless Wild West, Meek's Cutoff has its titular figure embody many personality traits associated with those classic Western heroes while revealing him as a deeply disturbed charlatan.

Bruce Greenwood delivers perhaps his most interesting feature film acting work in the role of Stephen Meek. Greenwood's pastiche of conventional Western heroes nicely portrays Meek as someone who's convinced himself internally that he's all that and a bag of chips while also clearly depicting him externally as nothing short of pathetic. Playing off of Greenwood in many of the tensest scenes of Meek's Cutoff is Michelle Williams as Emily Tehterow, a figure who becomes more and more outspoken as the story progresses. If Greenwood's performance represents a more unflinching depiction of traditional Western protagonists, Williams is tasked with lending life and authority to a role (19th-century American wife) that typically barely got any dialogue of substance in classic Westerns.

Now, if you've got a character who has to spend much of a given story with very little dialogue, then Williams and her gift for subdued but harrowing performances would be a perfect fit for the part. And so it is that she assimilates wonderfully with the role of Emily Tetherow as she communicates her character's frustration in a subtle dialogue-free approach early on before gradually having a more pronounced presence (albeit, still with minimal dialogue) as the story goes onward. Williams consistently captures the undercurrent of exasperation residing within this character in a way that manages to be both subdued yet still conveys Emily's perspective in an effervescent manner.

These two lead performances are among the best elements to emerge under Kelly Reichardt's direction in Meek's Cutoff right alongside the blocking and staging of individual shots. Filmed in a narrow 1:33: 1 aspect ratio, each shot of Meek's Cutoff shows careful consideration for how much space is in a given shot and arranges the characters, props and even parts of the landscape accordingly. This means that each frame of Meek's Cutoff shows a precise level of intricate detail in terms of staging that results in numerous pieces of memorable imagery. Combining that sense of staging with the aforementioned transcendentalism filming style also means that Meek's Cutoff has an engrossing visual aesthetic unlike anything seen in the classic Western movies this film seeks to deconstruct. Meek's Cutoff is truly a one-of-a-kind film both when considered as a Western and just as a general piece of cinema.

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