The subservience of humanity to the environment in Meek’s Cuttoff (2010) dir. Kelly Reichardt

Here is the first instalment in a series of short film reviews that reflects on directors who have been brave enough to film in the most hostile of locations.

It is 1845, the early days of the Oregon Trail, and three emigrant families must pass the Cascade Mountains in search of fertile land in the west. Despite following the leadership of frontier guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) across the Great Plains, the pioneers eventually lose their way, their water and their patience.

MC 2

Reichardt illustrates the desperation of the desert through her minimal soundscapes. The harrowing silence of travelling across arid desert is apparent from the absence of sound and dialogue during the feature’s prolonged opening; it is an unrelenting slow-burner that eventually reaches a chaotic, almost hysterical, emotional climax. The screenplay could almost have been written by Samuel Beckett.

What is more troubling is the silence that comes from the Native American they capture (a stellar performance by Rod Rondeaux). When consulted on the search for clean water, he is nonplussed in a way that seems to suggest that, as a member of the indigenous population and the racial other, he has conspired with the unforthcoming landscape against the travellers.

Meek's Cutoff

In an interview Reichardt describes the conditions filming in heat that exceeded 100 degrees. Vehicles broke down during the two-hour drive along dust tracks to the filming location. It should not be forgotten that this is a micro-budget film; indeed, the amount of money spent on feeding the horses and oxen came to the same amount spent on her second feature.

The thriller is a must-see, but be prepared for a slow start!

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