As someone who often defends slow films in which not much happens, I sometimes wonder if I’m a bit to gracious and forgiving of these films. After seeing Meek’s Cutoff, my fears were dissuaded as I remember that, when done wrong, this style of film storytelling is an arduous and fruitless affair.
The only thing more vapid than the dry, barren landscapes the character trudge through is the film itself. This is not to say that the film does not have plot, characters or themes, but that they are all so vacuous, empty and hollow that nothing about the film ends up resonating. It’s minimalism to the point that the film almost entirely exists on a shallow surface level.
Some will tout the film as a strong portrait of a woman exceeding the gender norms of her society. First of all, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) exists on the fringe of society. True, the troop represents an attempt to civilize and the film imposes basic gender norms through Stephen Meek’s (Bruce Greenwood) blatant sexism, the character exist in a vacuum, the only cultural demarcation some random quotations from the Bible.
True, Emily steps up and speaks out when her soft spoken husband tries to maintain some semblance of balance, but if anything, she only seems to make things become tenser and more heated. She is the only female that wields a gun in the film and challenges Meek’s masculine power, but she simply attempts to usurp power, not ever establishing her own, actually backing another form of male power. I much prefer cinema’s strong women of 2010: Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone. She faced much greater hardship in a cultural context where her defiance means far more.
There’s also something unintentionally comical about how simplistic and stripped these characters are. Meek is probably the greatest example as the stereotypical Western blowhard, a cheap knockoff of True Grit’s Rooster Cogburn. The two other women of the film are the sort of panicky, soft women that quickly become bad jokes before they’ve played out their entire role.
The relationships are dull, stereotypical and uninteresting. Even last year’s True Grit, which was an old style Western, feels much fresher and more compelling that this minimalistic attempt at a feminist approach to the Western genre. Where True Grit contains a dynamic play between the characters and some strongly written passages as Meek’s Cutoff makes sure half the conversations aren’t even audibly discernable and those that are audible fail to be memorable or compelling.
The only blip of interest in this otherwise empty space of a film is the introduction of a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) about thirty minutes into the film. He just doesn’t seem to care and has a few moments where he toys with these misguided travelers. I like to think that he’s leading them all to their deaths. His intentions are never spoken, in part because we never understand a word he says, which, by default, makes him the most compelling character in the film.
Before Meek’s Cutoff begins, it feels tired, misguided, spread out over a runtime it can’t sustain. The conflicts fail to be meaningful because the film never invests us in any of the characters. The misguided theme only exacerbates the film’s issues. There’s nothing here to sustain the runtime, it’s a film with a few moments of interest, all of them involving the Native American, but never a film that is cohesive or compelling to watch.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing