The Best Films of the Decade: #7. Meek’s Cutoff (2011)

| January 4, 2020
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The old decade is gone, and 2020 is upon us. Still, I persist in my journey through the best films of the decade. So, this week, my top ten.

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Kelly Reichart, by her own description, doesn’t make films with a safety net. From Wendy and Lucy to Old Joy and even going back to 1994’s River of Grass, her films overturn your expectations. They are less about plot then they are about the weathers of the human soul, battered and bereaved by the cold and unpredictable winds of chance absent of the comforts of destiny.

Meek’s Cutoff, in my opinion, is the best example of her style of storytelling. It’s a bleak, spare, genre-defying western far from the gloss and polish of Monument Valley and John Ford.  Here we follow a group of adventurous settlers in covered wagons in 1845, lost in the unsettled plains of God-Knows-Where, apparently in search of their own manifest destiny.  Among them are three families and a grizzled trail guide named Steven Meek (Bruce Greenwood) who won’t admit that he has gotten them lost and is privately hoping for a lucky break – he promised to get the party to their destination in two weeks, but it has stretched currently into five.

The curious focus of the film is not on the men (as is the requirement of 99.9% of Hollywood westerns) but on the women.  Played by Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson, their point of view is seen from the back of the wagons and narrowed by the bonnets that obscure their vision.  These women, particularly Williams’ Emily Tetherow are privately more up-to-speed on the situation at hand then the men that are supposedly leading them to a better life.  She knows that the situation is hopeless, and ultimately, she finds a solution that is unconventional and, given the texture of the times, basically unheard of.

In one sense Meek’s Cutoff is episodic. The families keep coming upon things that surprise them as if they are traversing a lunar landscape, but rarely is an easy solution to be found.

What comes of Meek’s Cutoff isn’t really about the story being told but rather about the people telling it.  The realities of pre-Civil War desert landscapes far from the established civilization and comforts given to most Hollywood westerns – there’s no small town, no sheriff, no general store, no dance hall.  This is the story of a group of wayward and foolhardy travelers facing the real reality of this time and place.  Reichert has a lot of respect for their passion but does not shy away from the misery of their situation.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
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