When I think of Western landscapes on film, I think first of Terrence Malick’s ravishingly beautiful Days of Heaven, the expansive prairie glowing with golden “magic hour” light. That luminous quality fits the dreamy tone of the film and its tale of an idyllic but doomed interlude in the lives of its characters. The light in Meek’s Cutoff, by contrast, could never be described as golden or magical. The sun has bleached and burned away virtually all color, leaving everything in its Western landscape a dingy yellow-brown. Parched heat practically radiates from the screen, which holds only an austere beauty, at best.
Nevertheless, Meek’s Cutoff constantly reminded me of Days of Heaven. In both, the cinematography is integral to the spirit of the film, giving texture and depth to a spare plot. The camerawork turns the wide Western plains into a fragile paradise in Heaven and a desiccated hell in Meek’s. Cinematography and storytelling are perfectly entwined.