Meek’s Cutoff – A Review

26 04 2011


Meek's Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt, Bruce Greenwood

The revisionist Western has been with us for so long now that it seems almost impossible to imagine any contemporary film-maker wanting to produce a piece of work on the old ‘good-guys-in-white-hats, bad-guys-in-black-hats’ template. From Clint Eastwood’s 1992 excoriation of his gun-toting past in Unforgiven to Jim Jarmusch’s brutal and chaotic Dead Man, from TV’s expletive-laden Deadwood to Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the Western has become a much more critical, questioning genre than ever before, with the old heroic certainties of the West long dead and buried somewhere out on the prairie.

The latest addition to the genre is Meek’s Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt, hitherto best known for her low-budget portrayals of contemporary American life (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy). In it, the director tells the story of a group of pioneers on or, more to the point, off the Oregon Trail in 1845.

As the film opens, the pioneers – three married couples and a boy – are well and truly lost. Having broken away from the main trail to follow the ‘cutoff’ suggested to them by their charismatic guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), they find themselves in an arid, almost featureless landscape of prairie grass and salt flats, with no obvious indication of which way to turn their wagons next.

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