Give Kelly Reichardt (director) and Jonathan Raymond (writer) due credit. They may have created a failure in Meek’s Cutoff, but it’s a failure that is serious, thoughtful and encourages discussion.
In 1845 three couples hire a guide to lead them through what is supposed to be a shortcut through the Oregon high desert to good homesteading land. Before long, exhausted, dirty and running short of water, Soloman and Emily Tetherow (Will Patton, Michelle Williams), William and Glory White (Neal Huff, Shirley Henderson) and their young son, and Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan) realize their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Davidson) is just as lost as they are.
They push on because they have little alternative. They must cross rivers, struggle over sun-parched flatland, depend on what brush there is to feed the oxen that pull their three wagons, and listen to the blustery tales of Meek when they can finally settle for the night. The men discuss what to do while the women try to listen. The men capture a lone Indian (Rod Rondeaux) who might lead them to water or might kill them. The men debate killing the Indian then and there. Meek in particular is in favor of this. One of the women, Emily Tetherow, speaks up and insists that the possibly of water is more important than anything else.
Now we see a subtle change as the balance of authority moves toward the women, especially Emily. They face life and death options…do they continue, do they turn back; do they move north, or south or west, do they treat the Indian as a savage or as a possible savior. Meek’s Cutoff ends as it began, with the settlers and Meek taking the only real option open to them…to just keep going.
The look of the movie is faded and dry. There is little dialogue. The mountains and desert are well photographed but slowly become claustrophobic. The world has become just these settlers, Meek, the Indian and the three wagons and the dwindling supplies. The men lead the oxen and the women trudge behind the wagons. They are all lost, and dying is one of the options facing them.
A good deal of effort was taken to be authentic, from the faded, long dresses and deep, shadowed bonnets of the women to the guttering lamps at night. And the nights are black and dense. Meek, all bluster and full of bragging stories, is a creature of filthy buckskins and a lot of hair. The women’s hands are dark with grime.
Why do I think Meek’s Cutoff is a failure? We observe this small band of humanity rather than feel connected to it. The long takes and lack of dialogue is tiring and makes for restless viewing. The ostensible options faced by them are really no options at all. They come to realize at each discussion of “What do we do next?” what we have long noticed: That every option is as bad or good as just doing what they’re doing. The ending is a fine example of an ambiguous conclusion that is not intriguing, just unsatisfying. It’s almost as if the director and the writer were telling us, “If you don’t get it, that’s not our responsibility.” This attitude is especially clear with the one extra, “The Making of Meek’s Cutoff.” We’re given extensive shots of wagons being built, set-ups in the desert, make-up applied and such…all without narration, explanation or logical placement of the scenes. Some scenes seem included simply because they photographed well. If a director doesn’t really care if her audience understands a “making of” feature, why should we care about either the feature or her movie? There is a kind of indie movie auteurism about the enterprise that is off-putting. Be warned, if you aren’t attentive during the first couple of minutes, you’ll probably miss why the settlers found themselves in the fix they’re in…something the director could have made clearer so easily.
And yet… Meek’s Cutoff lends itself to intelligent discussion…the director’s intent, the circumstances, the options, the role of the Indian, the changing dynamic between the men and the women, the actors, the ending.
Not many movies give us such a variety of things to talk over with friends.
Star Rating: I get excited when a film opens without dialogue, for it challenges me to interpret meaning through action and location - which is, cinematically speaking, a different language entirely. Consider the first scenes of Meek's Cutoff, which takes place in 1845 and tells the story of three families trekking west along the Oregon Trail. First, we watch as they wade across a river, which is no small feat when you're travelling with steer, horses, … more
Since I retired in 1995 I have tried to hone skills in muttering to myself, writing and napping. At 75, I live in one of those places where one moves from independent living to hospice. I expect to begin … more
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