Meek's Cutoff Reviews
Wow, what a dull movie. I managed about 20 minutes before I'd had enough.
I for one got a good amount of enjoyment from watching Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff. It has such beautiful cinematography. Every single shot of this film is what you'd call art. It's been a while since I was so blown away by the pure beauty that is every single shot of this film. So it looks great and that does mean a lot to me. I also loved Michelle Williams, as always. Every time I watch her in another movie, I end up loving her more than I did before. Bruce Greenwood is also good and Paul Dano has a role, but he's nothing too special in it.
Meek's Cutoff follows a couple of families as they follow a man named Meek who promised them he could get them to the mountains quicker then the trail. He took a shortcut, but it seems like anything but a shortcut. The movie begins with the families crossing a river and collecting water. The scene goes on for quite awhile and at first I wondered why, but it was extremely apparent as the film moved on. They find themselves without much water and Meek isn't able to bring them to any. So now some of them are questioning Meek. Then a Native American shows up around them, so they capture him and try to make him show them to the water.
There's a lot in this film that would and obviously has put off audiences. It's slow, it's quiet, and it doesn't really lead us anywhere. Well that's the point. We're kind of put into the same situation as the people in the move. We're being lead around a film, but are we going to get anywhere? Their being led around the wilderness, but will they get anywhere?
I'm not going to say this is a masterpiece or anything, although visually it is. I'm not going to say I loved it, but it will make me watch Kelly Reichardt's other films and the ones she does in the future. Look, I'm not going to recommend this because I just don't think there's a lot of people who would like it. I liked it, but I don't speak for majority of people.
There are huge expanses of "nothin'" in eastern Oregon - plains and playas where the nearest mountain is 40 or 50 miles away... in other words, you have to traverse the same barren moonscape for 4 to 5 days just to get there! I'm sure that it would never appear that the mountains are getting any closer. I've been through the area around Burns, Oregon where this was filmed (there are wild horses to be photographed in the area - as well as lots of petroglyphs and dinosaur footprints) and was sure glad I had a vehicle that was capable of 70mph, for some of the vistas indeed did seem endless.
What director Kelly Reichardt shows us is that boredom and stark realism. For much of the film no-one says much and not much happens - just the 3 covered wagons being led across the vast wilderness - well filmed with one long shot dissolving into another, day after day after day.
Soon, from the sparse dialog you get the picture - this group of 3 east coast families (who going in don't know each other at all), hire Steven Meeks as a guide to get them into the promised land (in this case the beautiful and bountiful Willamette Valley). Meeks is full of tall tales and it becomes apparent that he really is more bluster than real, and he has gotten the group hopelessly lost.
When a curious Indian begins following the group, the defacto group leader (solidly played by Will Patton) convinces Meeks and the others to capture the Indian in the hopes that he can lead them to water. What transpires thereafter deals with trust, fear, and prejudice while the tension slowly mounts over whether the group will find water and survive.
Along the way there is a solid minimalist performance of Michelle Williams and a nice turn by Bruce Greenwood as the blowhard Meeks to go with the vast vistas of nothingness. At an hour and 45 minutes, the film does waste considerable screen time on said nothingness, both scenery wise and in terms of script. When faced with having to lower the wagons down a steep slope via rope one at a time I question whether it was really necessary for Reichardt to show the descent of all three. It's this kind of questionable directorial decision that makes the film a nice contemplation on a time and place, but ultimately a flawed piece of cinema.
So, this basically fails as enntertainment, but excels as a non-documentary, documentary. And, for the most part, I really dug this.
The movie doesn't really start or end in proper fashion, but simply exists. The year is 1845, the earlist time for the Oregon Trail. Three families have enlisted the help of mountain man Steven Meek who has them stray from the trail in order to take what he says is a shortcut across the Cascade Mountains. As it turns out, Meek is wrong and the party end up lost in the dry, stark, and barren high plains, left with no fresh water or hope. Not only that, but the group encounters a wandering Native American who may or may not be trying to help them, just like how Meek may or may not have intentionally gotten them lost...
By the way, this is based on true events. Of course, the movie opts for an ambiguous conclusion, but it's safe to say that there's some darkness and tragedy going on. The presentation is also very slow, deliberate, and contains a very loose narrative with sparse dialogue. Also, the scenes with the Indian are done without subtitles, so all the characters (and the audience) are left to interpret for themselves what is going on, which I really appreciated.
The film is very much like something Werner Herzog would do. There's even a scene that's something of a reverse Fitzcarraldo. Yeah, not much happens, but I found the film oddly compelling and engaging. Sure, it's a bit tedious at first, and there's not much character development, but that's what makes it so fascinating. It really is like looking in on real life. People really do mundane things, and aren't always interesting, and that's what the bulk of this film is: people traveling, doing chores, and trying to survive.
So of course this isn't for all tastes, but it's definitely well done. The art direction, costumes, and period details are top notch. The cinematogrpahy is gorgeous, and the landscapes look terrific. There's a talented cast here, and I love their willingness to be a part of an artsyt indie project like this that bucks conventions and sticks to its vision all the way through. Michelle Williams (who looks badass on the poster) is good, Paul Dano is okay, and Will Patton is decent, but the film belongs to Bruce Greenwood, unrecognizable underneath a long scraggly beard and greasy long hair as Meek. It's a badass performance, and it's cool seeing him be grungy with an undercurrent of menace.
By this point in my review you should know how I feel and have a good idea of whether you want to see this or not. Leave it at that.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Summary: Set in 1845, this drama follows a group of settlers as they embark on a punishing journey along the Oregon Trail. When their guide leads them astray, the expedition is forced to contend with the unforgiving conditions of the high plain desert.
My Thoughts: "The movie is listed as an action/adventure. Adventure, yes. Action, where? The most action you get out of this film is watching them walk. I am not one for westerns, if you can even call it that, but I seen that Michelle Williams is in the film and I love watching her in anything. She and Paul Dano are the only reasons I didn't push stop on the remote. The story is somewhat interesting, but I have read that the story being played out in this film isn't quite exactly the correct version. More likely this is the boring version of the story. The acting is all good in this film. That and the scenery is the only thing this film has going for it."
Nate's Grade: D
However, the subject of settling the West and taking possession of land by literally a "staking a claim" in it does not stand with me as well as the derogatory comments against Native Americans.
Another interesting complexity is that the film in a way draws up for question what it means to feel lost. Walking out of the theater, I found myself thinking about this in some new ways. What triggers in people the feeling of being lost? What makes it go away? When people feel it, they often say, "I don't know where I am," which calls to mind that ancient Buddhist maxim: "Everywhere you go, there you are."
While the complexities are a pleasure and the film is strong, "Meek's Cutoff" doesn't bowl one over. It has a haunting quality, and it will surely make numerous Top 20 lists at the end of the year. But I don't suspect it will make many Top 5 lists. Ms. Reichardt is a unique and courageous artist, and we're lucky to have her. She refuses to court the mainstream or kowtow to trends. Commercial considerations seem to play absolutely no role in her work. Only artistic considerations matter to her. This is enormously appreciated in these times of shallow commercialism. But there's something underwhelming about her work. Her ultra-minimalist style frequently feels thin. She's a genuine cinematic auteur, but not a great one. At least not yet.
Many of the great cinematic artists of our time are minimalist. Since about 1960, that has been one of the predominant methods for reaching higher artistic ground. But where, say, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's minimalism feels most often like a feast, Kelly Reichardt's often comes across like starvation. Minimalism as anorexia.
"Meek's Cutoff" is set in 1840s North America. Three white American families are seeking to settle in the west, but it's not turning out as they had hoped. They are in a vast barren part of the Oregon territory that seems to have no end, and food and water are scarce. They have put their faith in a fellow white American named Stephen Meek (very well played by Bruce Greenwood), but they may have succumbed to the naive belief that all white Americans look out for each other.
When Meek's cutoff leads them nowhere, they begin to suspect that he's in cahoots with either the British or the Natives to prevent Americans from settling in the region. When the film opens, they have been wandering in the arid near-desert for five weeks already. The would-be settlers are staring into the face of death and wondering if their last act on Earth should be to hang Meek. But how can they be sure of his intentions?
Then they capture a lone Indian, and everything gets more interesting. The Indian (played beautifully by a professional stuntman named Rod Rondeaux) seems not to understand any English, and none of them understands his language. They impress him into servitude, asking to be led to water. Meek is unremittingly hostile to the Indian, saying that Indians are murderous and cunning. Is Meek protecting the settlers or trying to prevent the Indian from rescuing them?
While I respect any movie that is brave enough to slow the pace down to the cadence of the period it is set in, "Meek's Cutoff" takes it too far and makes the viewer feel like he just walked the entire length of the Oregon Trail, wasting a perfectly good cast in the process. In fact, it definitely made me thirsty watching it.(Somebody could conceivably make a fortune off the bottled water concession for this movie alone.) But as much as the attitudes of the time might be authentic, viewing them from a 21st century perspective is a little too easy. In the end, the question remains what were they really looking for in the first place. That might not matter as long as they don't litter.
Kelly Reichardt smoothly lead us to the end following very elegantly made script by Jonathan Raymond and the acting of Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Zoe Kazan and Tommy Nelson made their tasks much easier, resulting in realistic very well made movie about the pioneers of the Wild West.
Don't miss this one, with great cinematography it will change your mental imagery of the Wild West.