“We’re all just playing our parts now. This was written long before we got here.”
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.
“They’re so easily taken when they are distracted, people are.”
There is a level of sleight of hand in selling six short films as a feature length release when they are essentially unconnected beyond their Western setting. Eccentric characters in farcical situations are a Coen Brothers staple but brevity leaves them feeling more like caricatures from Tim Blake Nelson as the titular crooning gunslinger of the opening tale to Tom Waits’ gold prospector to James Franco’s ill-fated bank robber. The exception is the penultimate tale, The Gal Who Got Rattled, which stands out as the best segment by some margin — its greater length allows its key players to develop so that we actually come to care about the events that befall them. The otherworldly final tale, in which strangers converse during a journey in a station wagon (with longform dialogue reminiscent of Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight but with none of the tension), hints at intended depth behind these dark morality plays that is never properly conveyed. The Coens’ signature style — aided by several strong performances — is still enough to sell the collection, butit falls short of the mark.