Establishing a poignant opening scene is the most important aspect of filmmaking and more often than not, otherwise talented screenwriters, directors, and editors underestimate its significance. The introduction of major characters, the picture’s setting, and putting the plot in motion are all elements that must be addressed from the start. In the case of Kelly Reichardt’s (Wendy and Lucy) Meek’s Cutoff, the first scene — a shot detailing the lives of a group of settlers as they prepare for the road ahead by harvesting water and completing miscellaneous chores — not only accomplishes the aforementioned but also foreshadows the laborious nature of the director’s latest; a mundane trip for both film’s characters and audience members alike.
Chronicling three families heading West along Oregon in 1845 — creaky wagons, tired, thirsty oxen and donkeys their only property — this Jonathan Raymond penned oater’s idiosyncratic ambitions of being as dull and bleak as possible is what set it apart from the rooting tooting horse operas of yesteryear. Leading the troupe is Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), whose admiration for corn cob pipes, loaded shotguns, and tall-tales precede him. Whilst telling his conglomerates (who’d much rather keep to themselves, the sound of dried soil and whimpering cattle disrupting the silence) stories of murderous bears, barbaric Indians, he promises beautiful valleys — an escape from the lifeless desert that is showcased extensively with stationary wide-shots.
These protagonists are far removed from civilization in this pre-Civil War frontier, which Meek oftentimes compares to Hell. The sense of adventure is also absent — especially during second act of Meek’s Cutoff, when they stumble upon and capture an unsuspecting Native American (Rod Rondeaux). This section, however, is good for character observation — Stephen’s sadistic and xenophobic traits are revealed, while another traveler, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), in the role of a resolute young woman, is allowed to blossom into a leader — her willingness to challenge sexual and racial oppression making her a revolutionary.
Unfortunately, undeveloped characters plague the rest of the cast. Despite Williams and Greenwood’s strong presence — the performers made unrecognizable by the grit of their journey — and Rondeaux’s exotic dialect — long-winded, indecipherable tongue lashings meant to incite suspicion in audience members, thus playing into the film’s central theme of discrimination — Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, and the young Tommy Nelson do not share the same appeal. Their roles are severely underwritten, being as stripped down to the minimum as the film itself.
Once again utilizing the slow pace of her earlier works, Reichardt tries hard to channel the Theatre of the Absurd; Meek’s Cutoff drawing comparison to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in that the characters of both works try to find salvation from their tiring, monotonous realities — even harsh conditions being no deterrent in Reichardt’s production. Where they do differ, however, is in the writing. Unlike many absurdist plays, the wit and dry humor are abandoned in Raymond’s script, leaving only dark references to chaos and destruction, thus allowing the direction — a salmagundi of creeping camera shots that move at a snail’s pace — to create an illusion of subtly.
But that can only take a picture so far. Where do these characters stem from? What made them decide to leave home? What did they do beforehand? None of these vital details are fully explored, leaving moviegoers, although aware of the symbolism, also feeling disconnected with the struggles of these travelers.