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Austin Film Festival 2010 Review: MEEK’S CUTOFF

GATW Guest Writer

by: GATW Guest Writer
April 8th, 2011

Editor's note: This review was originally published on October 27, 2010 at the Austin Film Festival.

Rating: 4.5/5

Writer: Jonathan Raymond
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Paul Dano, Rod Rondeaux

Ever heard of The Bechdel Test? It has also been seen under the names Mo Movie Measure or Bechdel Ruleif that rings a bell. Essentially, it is a simple test about how most films portray women, and to pass, answers to the following three criteria must be answered in the affirmative: (1) it has to have at least two women in it, who (2) talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man. The test was popularized by Alison Bechdel's comic Dykes To Watch Out For, in a 1985 strip called The Rule. Kelly Reichardt's masterful work MEEK'S CUTOFF is one of the few movies, and Westerns for that matter, that manages to actually pass the Bechdel Test, but it just barely does.

MEEK'S CUTOFF does have at least two women in it (three, in fact), they all talk to each other, and once or twice they talk about something besides their husbands: they begin to question if leaving their lives up to a High Plains hustler named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) as they wander the Oregon desert in 1845 is really the best plan of attack. It's a story about survival told through the lens of a woman struggling with staying loyal versus staying alive. And it's remarkable.

What makes it great? The characters, the sense of isolation and desperation, and the refreshing take on the classic western told from a new perspective make MEEK'S CUTOFF a revelation to behold. The film starts out much like THERE WILL BE BLOOD, with absolutely no dialogue as we get introduced to the three women through the chores they do, offering more insight into their lives then any soliloquy ever could. We hear the creak of the wagons as they truck along, and then we hear the booming, animated voice of the cantankerous Stephen Meek. He parades a story he's probably told a thousand times in a hundred different ways to the transfixed Jimmy White (Tommy Nelson) - the youngest of the group and most likely the only one left who hasn't grown tired of the boisterous Meeks regaling tales of his former glory. In any other film, this would be Meeks' movie and writer Jonathan Raymond and actor Bruce Greenwood craft a character so compelling that it accomplishes two things: a deep desire to see a stand alone film where Meeks actually is the centerpiece, and it reaffirms Reichardt's decision to focus on the women in MEEKS instead of a man who the audience probably finds more interesting. The iconic character of Meeks is created and portrayed so brilliantly only to remind you that this is not a film about him; it is a film about Emily Tetherow, played with aplomb by Michelle Williams.

Bear in mind, however, that this is not a story of feminism on the Oregon Trail, and it shouldn't be marketed that way. In such a dire situation, struggling to find your way back on the path as you slowly become more lost and dehydrated in 19th century Oregon, a power struggle of some kind is almost inevitable. That means that women simply had more of an opportunity to lead, as they now found themselves outside the constraints of civilized life. You become part of a unit trying to survive and strong-willed women like Emily Tetherow took the opportunity to step up and take control. It is here where MEEK'S CUTOFF cuts to the core of the matter, with the film now becoming a battle of wills between Meeks and the newly anointed Mrs. Tetherow.

The other two women in MEEK'S CUTOFF are not cut from the same cloth and each of them have entirely different dispositions, with only Emily Tetherow exhibiting qualities of a truly strong female character. The Female Character Flow Chart created by Shana Mlawski and Carlos A. Hann Commander poses a number of questions in order to ascertain whether or not the woman in the film you're watching is a strong female lead, or if she is probably more likely one of the many offshoots. These questions will be asked to see if Reichardt and company really did create a fully realized woman out of the indomitable character of Emily Tetherow. Can she carry her own story? Without question. Is she three dimensional? We see a range of emotions from Emily: fear, loyalty, indignation, wit, and ultimately strength. If she isn't a three dimensional character, one hasn't ever really existed on film before. Does she represent an idea? This is the most important question. If she does, then the character gives way to the idea and is now in danger of potentially becoming cliche. Emily is not just simply representing feminism here, and if she was it would undermine the human being up on the screen. Does she have any flaws? Absolutely, she shows signs of racism and weakness throughout the film. Finally, is she killed before the third act? It would be a travesty to reveal that but if she does make it through to the end of MEEK'S CUTOFF, then the character of Emily Tetherow passes the test with flying colors. (Try answering those questions with the other female characters and see what you come up with).

Michelle Williams is a firecracker in MEEK'S to be sure, but Bruce Greenwood should win an Oscar for his role as Meeks. He simply disappears behind the long gray hair, scraggly beard, and tattered hat, but his eyes tell the entire bloody history of the Old West with a glance. Will Patton is the anchor of the film and the moral center, with Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan and Rod Rondeaux as The Cayuse also turning in great supporting work.

The direction by Kelly Reichardt is also top-notch: making the bold choice to not film her western in widescreen (choosing instead to shoot in the TV ratio of 4:3), each shot is still exquisitely composed - playing off the shapes of bonnets and cowboy hats and placing characters on top of each other when the landscape provides cliffs and jagged rocks. Her Western is different than most male-centric Westerns and Reichardt wants her western to look different as well.

The sound and score emphasize the perspective the story is being told through and the bleakness of the situation the characters find themselves in. For example, there are scenes where the men are off in a corner barely in earshot, discussing what the group should do next: turn back or keep moving on the trail to find water and ultimately a staked territory. The audience can barely hear what the men are saying, just as the women can only catch snippets of their fates being decided. Forced to watch these scenes with no close-ups or clearer dialogue reinforces the female perspective and puts you in the shoes of the three women immediately and it's incredibly effective.

In the museum housing all the great westerns, MEEK'S CUTOFF should definitely have a pedestal next to some of the classics. It re-invents the genre without undermining it, and creates icons out of what could have so easily become cliche.

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