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Meek’s Cutoff (2011)

May 3, 2011

7/10 Dry Spells

Bleak and patient, just the way I like it.

Meek’s Cutoff is about a band of immigrants making their way across the Oregon Trail in the 1840s. From the moment we meet them, they’re totally lost, their guide has no idea where he’s leading them, and they are running out of water right fast. Then they come across a local Indian, take him prisoner, and in turn put their lives in his hands to lead them to water or lead them to his tribe to get scalped wholesale.

So if you’ve ever played The Oregon Trail (if you haven’t, you haven’t lived), this is pretty much that very experience in movie form. No one dies of dysentery, but you’ve got your broken axles, your river fording, your bartering with the natives, and the endless hunt for food and water that always killed off all my livestock before I could even hit the Dakotas. As a video game, it was a frustrating blast, but in real life, the Oregon Trail was actually a pretty gnarly and outrageously monotonous time.


With that being said, this is a Western that’s probably closer to The Road than it is to The Proposition. Despite the badass poster that would lead one to believe there’s at least one scene with Michelle Williams blowing fools away, the truth of the matter is that it take a good five minutes to actually reload that damn gun after each shot and killing dudes is the last of anyone’s worries here. In a nutshell, the story here starts with the wagon trail filling up their water supplies and the rest of the story follows them wandering around in the middle of nowhere looking high and low for a refill. Sounds riveting, I know, but it works.

The thing is, this whole movie is down time, and while that’s occasionally something that I’d knock a movie for, this one’s an exception. It’s slow and there isn’t much of a plot that extends beyond how freakin’ thirsty these folks are, but that’s just the reality of the situation and that’s just the kind of movie this is. Director Kelly Reichardt isn’t out for blood and she isn’t catering to the trigger-happy adrenaline junkies in the crowd, because, let’s face it, we’ve all read books or seen photos of what life was like in the frontier days and wondered how they didn’t die of boredom without being able to Tweet 50 times a day. No, it ain’t much of a thrill ride and you might have to be in the right mood to appreciate it without nodding off, but by the same token, that’s what made it so watchable.

Meek’s Cutoff is different because it takes a step a forward by taking a step back, and while the decision to go for realism over entertainment isn’t the most popular road out there, it does manage to draw a lot out of a little. For one, it’s flat-out gorgeous to soak in all the sunsets, all the stark, sprawling landscapes, and all that Big Sky Country that us New Yorkers can’t even get in the boonies of Staten Island. Since there’s not a whole lot to be said, not a whole lot to be done and the lengthiest of conversations run just shy of a minute, the visuals go a long way when it comes to creating a mood and keeping viewers engaged. Also has a fantastic, eerie score to back it all up and heighten that fear of the unknown with each new day they come up empty-handed.

And the characters are good, but the only problem is that there’s too many of ’em. Not including the Indian, I think there’s seven people that make up this crew, and while they all serve their purpose, I suppose, it really could have been narrowed down to four or five. Maybe it’s ’cause the “comedic relief” of the bunch is played by one Shirley Henderson, so every time she opened her mouth, the only thing I could think of was Moaning Myrtle in the old West. Strange casting decision, but aside from that, I feel like seven travelers is too much to give some of these nomads the development they deserved.

But all in all, the characters are good, the cast is solid, and it’s interesting to see the way Jonathan Raymond’s script goes from that of a survival story to ultimately something else that’ll have you scratching your head when the end credits start rolling. With that being said, I’m not quite sure I actually liked the ending (especially since Reichardt herself showed up for a Q&A at the screening and all the snooty hipster jerks in the crowd were too busy wooing her with their highfalutin film school comments and whatnot that time ran out before anyone go the chance to just ask her “What the fuck was going on with that ending?”), but it’s not bad per se, it’s more something to mull over.

So if it hadn’t been for the suspect ending, Meek’s Cutoff had a good chance at landing itself a good old 8. I still haven’t seen Reichardt’s debut effort, Wendy and Lucy, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and assume that there aren’t a whole lot of similarities between that and this outside of the crew involved. And for someone who’s only two movies deep into her career, I totally dig that and it makes you wonder why more women (or men for that matter) don’t make Westerns. Man, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a Western in theaters and it’s great to find one that doesn’t fit into the mold of what’s expected without boring me to tears. Not the kind of movie I can recommend high and low because, now that I think of it, I’ve never had a problem with cowboys shooting cowboys for two hours, but it’s something to see a Western that marches to the beat of its own drum for once.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2011 3:49 am

    I can’t wait to get my hands on this, though it does have it’s fair share of detractors (understandably).

    As for Wendy & Lucy, great little film, especially if you have emotional ties with a pet. But it is pretty slow as well, and while nothing really goes on, it’s a wonderful character study. I’m sure Reichardt bought Williams a back brace as part of the budget, cause she absolutely carries that film.

    • May 5, 2011 11:06 am

      Yeah, that’s been on my queue for ages now. Looking forward to checking it out now, even if I’ve never really owned a dog.

  2. Jon permalink
    September 26, 2011 9:52 pm

    The movie could have been so much better. Its started slow, and ended frustratingly. Ugh.

    • October 7, 2011 2:33 pm

      Yeah, it moved like molasses alright and the ending was as abrupt as they come, but still thought it was pretty neat for what it was.

  3. October 12, 2011 5:45 pm

    It remained very intersting until the end. The ending was cheap. It wasn’t original. It wasn’t poinient. It was just cheaply hacked off. I went home and wrote a new ending where he takes them to a abandoned fortress that had imprisioned Indians. THere is a creek there, and here he leaves them with the door flapping. This was all he knew of thier world, and there they are.

    • October 14, 2011 5:36 pm

      Can’t argue that. And dig your new ending, think I would have given it an 8 had that happened. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. October 12, 2011 5:48 pm

    Hey! It’s 2011 now! Make a extra 10-15 minutes while the actors all look the smae! Just do it! There will NEVER be a better time then the present. Oh, wait. That would requier………. admitting………… never mind. All for art right?

  5. LNL permalink
    November 13, 2011 2:32 am

    I would have to say this movie was a giant waste of time. Who purposely would write a script w/o an ending? It was so illogical I had to check in w/the reviews to ensure I wasn’t missing something. Its a relief to see I wasn’t going nuts!

    • November 16, 2011 11:39 am

      Hahaha. Yeah, the crowd was awfully confused when the end credits started rolling. Still thought it had its merits, but I hear ya’. You’re not alone.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. usmcvietnamvet permalink
    January 23, 2012 8:45 am

    Idiocy. Wasted my money and my time watching this strange, inelegant movie. The director demonstrated her ability to immerse her audience into a grimy, spare, primitive environment and then just leave us there. Swell – you can get exactly the same experience be driving our into Death Valley and then just sitting there for two hours.

    The costuming and equipping was unusually correct, right down to the flint rilfes and their laborious loading process but that beard that they pasted on the Stephen Meeks character looked like they glued Aunt Harriet’s wig to his face.

    My favorite part was the Native American character who babbled along in authentic-sounding dialect which nobody understood. He sort of represnted all of us watching this thing. Another great reason why we should avoid films by art-house twits: we end up encouraging them to keep making meaningless crap. My copy’s heading for the trash.

    • February 6, 2012 11:52 am

      Hahaha. Think I liked it a bit more than you did, but well said all the same. Not the most accessible or rewarding movie I saw all year, but still liked the whole idea of the cinematic version of The Oregon Trail.

  7. Richard Ellicott permalink
    November 8, 2012 7:21 am

    Well, i enjoyed the comments, and i enjoyed the movie, but after starving the viewer to end it like that was complete BS. Ahhh…thats better!


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