What I’ve Been Watching: Meek’s Cutoff

Article first published as Movie Review: Meek’s Cutoff on Blogcritics.

Meeks cutoff poster 02The Western genre has provided plenty of material for filmmakers over the years. The principle of an isolated community try to form its own identity and laws amidst the struggle for survival has given rise to some of cinema’s greatest stories.

Nevertheless, in comparison to fifty or sixty years ago there seems to be a lot less Westerns for cinema goers to enjoy. One type of film that does not seem to have had that problem over the past decade is the post-apocalyptic genre. It is interesting to note the similarities between films like Meek’s Cutoff and films like The Road, 28 Days Later, or the last tv show I reviewed, The Walking Dead.

Meek’s Cutoff is a film which sees a small community of settlers in America trying to make a new life for themselves in the West Coast. They have hired a bearded, straight-talking man called Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to be their guide. He claims to know the area better than anyone, taking every opportunity to warn them about the savage Indians native to the area.

However, as the group travels further and further into the wilderness some, including Emily (Michelle Williams) begin to doubt the wisdom of their guide, Meek. As the struggle to survive becomes harsher, the group discover the enemies within are often more dangerous than the enemies without.

So, how does a film set in the mid-nineteenth century with all the carriages, dresses, guns and dialogue one might associate with the era have anything in common with The Walking Dead, a tv show which contains zombies, tanks, and lots and lots of gore?

Fundamentally, both are about the struggle for survival. They both contain a small community in a harsh, uncompromising environment; they both contain people having to reassess their values and laws in light of new circumstances and new dangers; they both contain groups of people discovering that the enemies within are often more dangerous than the enemies without.

Perhaps we should not be so surprised that stories which are worlds apart visually share so much in common thematically. The story of humanity’s struggle for survival is one which has been revisited by every generation in every civilisation. It is through these types of stories we can discover what is most important to us. Since, by removing the mundane problems of modern life, we can examine more closely what is fundamental to our understanding of ourselves.

Meek’s Cutoff does this very successfully. It is a film which is sparse, quiet and unsettling. Like a zombie in The Walking Dead, the film creeps up on you slowly. On the surface, very little seems to happen, but the small decisions characters do make have a huge impact both on their humanity and their survival.

Michelle Williams, as ever, is magnificent as Emily. A character who has little or no say within the group at the start of the film, but who takes a stand on the way the group should behave, and begins to earn the respect of those around her as a result. Williams seems to carry this unreadable, war-torn look with her in whatever role she takes, which is strangely reminiscent of early De Niro. Out of all the actresses in Hollywood at the moment, she seems to be the one making the most consistently interesting choices. For me, Meek’s Cutoff has cemented Michelle Williams’ place amongst a small number of actors whose films are ‘must see’.

Meek’s Cutoff is quietly powerful film which shows a director not afraid to give both his characters and audience room to consider everything which is happening to them. It is through the large amounts of space we are given we can consider the bigger questions the movie is asking. Among them, what of are humanity are we prepared to give up in the struggle to survive?


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