Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Michelle Williams, Rod Rendaux
Running Time: 104 min
Old Joy director Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist western Meek’s Cutoff trundles into the IFI this week, and one suspects it will leave screens as empty as the barren landscapes it portrays. The film is torturously tedious, and shoots itself in the foot with its determination to bore the spurs off of any who dare cross its trail. Set in the 1840s American Midwest, the story follows three families crossing the desolate plains in a small wagon train in search of a new life in the freshly populated western frontier. Fearful that their guide has led them astray, they turn to a captive native, in the hope that he will lead them to water.
Reichardt ensures every moment of their weary existence is captured with a mind-numbing attention to detail. Those who would hazard a viewing should prepare to FEEL what it’s like to do your laundry in a river. Get ready to EXPERIENCE every arduous second of fixing a wagon. And truly KNOW what it’s like to just walk, and walk, and walk all day. These characters are clearly desperate, and the film is quick to imbue a similar feeling of desperation in its audience. Sadly this desperation doesn’t arise from a sense of sympathy or empathy for the authentically dull and subdued cast. It is born from the creeping realisation that the movie you have committed two hours of your life to has placed ‘boring you into sedation’ at the very top of its priorities list.
Shot in an unusual square 4:3 ratio, Meek’s Cutoff makes little use of camera movement, and is essentially a series of sustained fixed shots, often exceeding two minutes in length. There is no denying the movie has a distinct visual style, but the combination of lethargic cinematography with arid environments and a complete lack of action results in one of the least visually engaging films in recent memory. The soundscape consists almost entirely of irksome over emphasised sound effects like buzzing flies, chewing, and a maddeningly squeaky wagon wheel. All these elements mix together to create a presentation that will aggressively grate away at an audience’s patience.
Every tiresome second of this film is deliberately vexing, it inexplicably revels in its own tedium. Any attempts at delivering a compelling story, or themes, or to draw any emotion from its viewers beyond boredom, are completely undone by its own commitment to monotony. If this truly was its intention, then by its own convictions at least, Meek’s Cutoff could be considered a success. As it stands however, it is a masterclass in eye gouging drudgery, only recommendable to the most masochistic of cinephiles.