Not your granddaddy's Western: a slow, methodical recreation of life on the Oregon trail.
Reviewed for MovieWeb by Harvey Karten
Directed By: Kelly Reichardt
Written By: Jonathan Raymond
Cast: Bruce Greenwood, Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Zoe Kazan, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux
Screened at: Review 2, NYC, 3/16/11
Opens: April 8, 2011
This is not your granddaddy's Western. Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and Gabby Hayes would not recognize the actions that take place in "Meek's Cutoff." They would not feel at home here, but Gus Van Sant would. Consider Van Sant's 2002 film "Gerry," in which two twenty-something men go off into the desert and forget to bring any food with them. "Gerry" has an opening that would likely drive half the audience to the exits-that's how slow-moving the scenes slide by, setting the tone for the remainder of the inaction. Kelly Reichardt would love that picture. She opens her "Meek's Cutoff" without dialogue for ten or fifteen minutes, her camera person grooving on some long shots of folks in a covered wagon traipsing across the Oregon Trail in 1845 before railroad made the trip outdated. Still it's tempting to say that the brave and foolish people making the trip perhaps all the way from the source of the Oregon Trail from the Missouri River 2,000 miles west to settle in new surroundings were traveling more quickly and comfortably than our Amtrak passengers today. (No, actually the trip took some six months to make.) This is not the Oregon we all want to travel to today, with roads of startling beauty and enough rain to keep the complexion clear. This is the Eastern desert region of that great state, where Christopher Blauvelt could feel assured that his cameras would never get waterlogged.
If you're seen Ms. Reichardts previous pics of which "Meek's Cutoff" could be considered the third of a trilogy, you've been warned about the patience she requires of her audience. Her "Old Joy" found two pals camping in the Cascade Mountains, immatre fellows with an uncertain future, while her "Wendy and Lucy" finds a woman's life financially derailed when her car breaks down on the way to a summer job and her dog is taken to the pound.
After scripter Jonathan Raymond takes a fifteen minute break during the opening of "Meek's Cutoff," we learn from the talk that a few people heading west have broken away from a large wagon train, trusting themselves to Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a guide who gets lost and possibly could not find his way to the bottom of his pronounced beard. Their water is getting low and some are already in near-panic with the thought of terminal dehydration that could result if they survive attacks by Indian tribes said to be lurking in the area. When they capture a single Native American (Rod Rondeaux) who speaks only the language of his Cayuse tribe, the natives (the white Americans, that is) are restless. Some wonder whether he's a spy that will lead them to his brethren and certain death. Others depend on him to act as a guide who could lead them to water. The jury of travelers is split, Meek holding out for hanging the lad, Millie (Zoe Kazan), shaking in her boots, and Emily (Michelle Williams) not only believing in the captive's good will but threatening any man who raises a pistol or slings a rope around a tree with being shot by her own rifle. (Michelle Williams had spent a considerable time studying the ways of the rifle, say the notes: how to clean it, how to fire it.) Emily's bold action leads to her being named acting leader of the group, a first considering how women had been left out of decision-making in such trips-though some feminists believe they were more headstrong and powerful then than they are now.
Will Patton rambles now and then as Soloman, as do Shirley Henderson as Glory White, Neal Huff as William White and Tommy Nelson as little Jimmy White. Surely director Reichardt could be trusted to do some renovations, if desired, around Williamsburg, Virginia, which features for tourists a permanent re-creation of Colonial America. She adamantly keeps to the traditions of 1845 in this movie, even down to noting that several different brands of coffee are used depending on where the American interlopers come from. The clash of civilizations is nothing new to America, involved as we are in Middle Eastern countries we know little about with virtually nobody on staff able to speak fluent Arabic and English. We were ugly Americans then, too, though from time to time we seem to surprise everyone with our generosity and creativity, the Emily factor, if you will. Let's hope that we are not too lost now in both domestic and foreign policy: we can do without people like Stephen Meeks, who had claimed to be a great guide but turns out to be not a walking GPS but rather a racist, bloviating loser.
If "Meek's Cutoff" lacks anything besides water and good will it's humor. There is not a single chuckle in the entire movie, though the cast and crew have done their painstaking best to recreate yet another perilous time in America's history of wanderlust. The film, which played at festivals in Toronto, Sundance and Venice, is in English and Pez Nerce. No subtitles for the latter tongue, which had to be used because the Cayuse language died out during the 19th century.
Rated PG. 104 minutes. © 2011 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online