Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Meek's Cutoff (2010)

Directed by Kelly Reichardt 

Written by Jonathan Raymond

Stephen Meek is guiding three couples across wild, untamed and unmapped Oregon in 1845, the earliest days of westward expansion.  When we meet them, the disillusioned settlers are wondering whether Meek is lost, or if he lied to them in claiming his alternative route, Meek's Cutoff, would be more direct and safer from Indian attack than the valleys of the Oregon Trail.

Deliberately joining the wagons in the midst of their journey and leaving before they arrive at any destination, this isn't some Hollywood story of triumphant pioneers overcoming hardship.  Instead, Meek's Cutoff is a slow examination of trust and betrayal in people on the edge of reason, trapped in an inhospitable, alien landscape, filled with fear and doubtful as to whether they'll survive.

I imagine this was a film to have seen in the cinema, where the big screen and enforced stillness would have aided the subtle, low contrast, lingering shots and creeping feeling of isolation - despite the chosen 4:3 aspect ratio no longer being considered truly cinematic by most audiences.  Unfortunately in this case, translation to a smaller screen meant a loss of detail and immediacy, and for me, a tendency to fall out of the film too easily.

In a way, Meek's Cutoff is a brilliant behind the scenes B-roll of pioneer journeys - a realistic portrayal of the privations undergone on the incomprehensibly arduous wagon trains, but as a contemplative look at complex human emotions and loyalties, I felt a little under-directed, a little lost.  It's entirely possible that was the point.

Also based on a true story, Into the Wild examines a completely different pioneer spirit: an American college graduate in the early 1990s who removed himself from society and disappeared into the wilds of Alaska. His attempt to throw off modern societal constructs and live his own way are thought-provoking, the film (reviewed on this blog here,) is beautifully made, and still haunts me.

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