“We’re all just playing our parts now. This was written long before we got here.”Stephen Meek
A Western stripped of American exceptionalism, these are pioneers at the mercy of a barren land, not taming it. Meek’s Cutoff prizes verisimilitude of the experience over narrative, which will frustrate many. Even the characters are mere sketches, elevated by an excellent cast who convey both camaraderie and mistrust. Michelle Williams stands out with a mixture of bold resolve and empathy, aided by a lens that tends toward the female perspective. A litmus test is likely your view on a Native American character who neither conveniently speaks English, nor is subtitled, since the pioneers have no way to understand him. With patience, however, Meek’s Cutoff is both memorable and haunting in its simplicity: the unrelenting sun by day, the enveloping blackness of night. The cinematography is also of note, this being a rare modern film shot in the Academy aspect ratio of 1:1.33, with the additional height being used to present vast skies overhead and the landscape dwarfing the wagon train. It is a tiny slice of The Oregon Trail, with less dysentery.