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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 Meek's Cutoff


Directed by Kelly Reichardt (2010)

As Meekís Cutoff is about to start the screen scrunches to 4:3, just like my telly does when I watch repeats of Dadís Army. This is shocking. Bewildering. A film about three settler families lost in the deserts of Oregon is surely made for widescreen. We need to gaze awestruck across those open vistas, to explore the limitless landscape.

Instead we peer through the unfamiliar square frame at a bunch of people cramped together under the big sky. Rudely woken from their American dream their great adventure becomes a grim scratching for survival.

Itís all Meekís fault. The grizzled old pioneer is supposed to be their guide to some lush promised valley in the mountains but he obviously hasnít a clue where heís going. And the water is running out.

They are not quite alone. Thereís an indian lurking. Just the one. Perhaps heís the last of his tribe. Meek (Bruce Greenwood), incorrigible racist that he is, warns them the redskin will rip the flesh from their bones at the first opportunity. But by now the settlers have more faith in the native (Rod Rondeaux) than they have in Meek and believe he can lead them to water.

So they capture him and he becomes their guide. Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) finds an affinity with him. Itís not just compassion. She seems to know something the others donít.

A strange inversion takes place as the white folk invest their future, their lives, in the red man. Their sense of purpose unravels and is wound up again in the indianís mysterious world. He talks an unfathomable language, and he converses with the sky, the moon. He is a part of nature.

The settlers are trapped by the country they are supposed to conquer, mired in their inland empire. Cut off.

Meekís Cutoff is no facile allegory. Itís too good for that. But you have to think of the fate of recent imperialist projects. As in Mohsen Makhmalbafís Kandahar the journey has no end. The destination, the quest, intention itself, evaporates.

Oddly enough, there is also something about Meekís Cutoff that reminds you of that imperialist fable Ice Cold in Alex. Without the pub. Which makes it all the more chilling.

May 18, 2011

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