Note: Spoilers within.
The first thing that bears mentioning with regards to Meek’s Cutoff is the trailer and it does connect to the film in a very real way. After watching the trailer you’d get the sense that while this will be a dramatic western and one with a journey but it’d be more uptempo. As soon as the movie starts, however, you will learn that exactly the opposite is true. This film has a very deliberate pace, which includes one of the slowest dissolves I’ve yet witnessed.
This is not to say that the pace is negative but just a warning that as a viewer it would behoove you to read a review, whether it be this one or a few others also before deciding to go out and see it. You really need to make sure you want to commit to seeing this movie because the trailer is selling a false bill of goods to an extent.
To be more explicit about the pace the polite word would methodical, and methodical paces can be trying if there is no reason for it but there is reason here. The tale that’s being told here is a part of a journey. There are a group of seven migrant people and a pathfinder looking for a new beginning. You don’t see their beginning but only the plight they currently face, which is mainly that of thirst. When the threat of dehydration and exhaustion are ever-present it can’t really be communicated in a quick cutting smooth flowing narrative context.
That’s just one aspect of the narrative conflict which is at work. This is the kind of film that actually has more going on than you realize on the surface because it doesn’t comment much on its issues and when it does so it’s only in a rather superficial way that belies its depth. The first struggles these travelers face is with with their pathfinder, played very well by an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood. They doubt he can really get them where they want to be, where there’s water and so do we after a point. This conflict precedes the one that dominates the second half of the film.
The major conflict of the second half of the film is both deciding what to do when they capture an Indian, Rod Rondeaux, and if they should follow and trust him. The film does well to not completely overlook its first conflict and places Meek (Greenwood) at odds with the traveling party about what to do with the native, there is some debate and they decide to spare him and hope he can lead them where they want to go.
The conflicts and intrigue continue here as not all the travelers are in agreement, some are scared of him and some see no alternative but to trust him. Stakes also get raised when much of their supplies are lost when one of their wagons crashes after making it down a steep grade.
The film only ever really goes over the top with some of its politicized dialogue. Almost any Post-Studio Era Western will have its debate on the true nature of the Native American and ostracize the racist White man who seeks to kill him- so that’s expected but it’s a bit much. Aside from that the drama is played rather close to the vest a lot of the time and doesn’t boil over too often. There is religious despair intimated by readings from The Bible, doubt and mistrust cast in glances and subtext.
There’s a stark isolation to the landscape and the framing of the characters that imbues itself in the celluloid and it’s a refreshingly cloistered tale wherein not only are there merely nine characters but you will even see them all at once. It’s a rare true ensemble piece where not only do all the actors get their moments but they frequently all play in a single shot.
It’s the kind of film you watch and feel like not much has happened but then when you reflect back on it there was more than you thought and to address the pace again I was caught off-guard by the ending because it didn’t quite feel like 104 minutes had passed. To comment on the ending I’m not sure it makes or breaks the film. It is open but if you consider the two most likely possible outcomes for the tale would those have been more dramatically satisfying? I think not, so this works just fine.