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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Meek's Cutoff Film Review - Will Patton and Michelle Williams

Three small families are headed west along the Oregon Trail. They are travelling in covered wagons in search of a better life. The film is set in the Wild West days of 1845. This is not a typical western ‘cowboy’ film. At least not kind I grew up watching. While I profess to know nothing of the old west, Kelly Reichardt (director) and Jonathon “Jon” Raymond (writer) do a nice job of convincing me that this is what the ‘cowboy days’ were really like.

There is no sheriff on a white horse or villain wearing a black hat in "Meeks Cutoff". There is no epic battle between cavalry and Indian tribes. The conflict in Meek’s Cutoff is limited to believable, realistic differences of opinion relayed mainly through civil, terse, conversations. These debates feel natural and creates the suspense of waiting for something bigger to happen.

Travel along the Oregon trail is long and difficult. “Meek’s Cutoff” is only 102 minutes long but the dry, sun scorched, journey feels like it is happening in real time. The terrain appears benign enough but it is so vast and lifeless that the landscape begins to eat away the morale of the travelers. They are dirty, thirsty, exhausted, depressed, losing hope and possibly lost.

Michelle Williams is terrific as always. Her character, Emily, much like her character in the movie “Wendy and Lucy”, maintains a determined resolve while others lose hope.

Will Patton, always a solid actor, is convincing as Emily’s husband, Solomon. I imagine his as the true typical Old West man. You can tell he is strong (you’d have to be back then) but not in a contrived, heroic way. His strength is used sparingly through terse and reasonable conversation. He never resorts to physical violence, it is not his nature.

Stephen Meek is the guide the wagon train hires to lead them safely along the Oregon Trail. Is Meek lost? Is Meek deliberately misleading this tiny band of travelers? Is he sinister and plotting or just little nuts and made an innocent mistake?

Bruce Greenwood does a great job playing Meek. I was wary of Meek from the very start of the film but somehow as the film progressed I became more ambivalent towards Meek. Greenwood evolves this character from what seemed to me like an inevitable train wreck at the beginning of the film to someone I was a bit more ambivalent (ie wary but hopeful) about toward the end.

I enjoy the collaborative style of Reichardt and Raymond. As a team they are masters of directly speaking to the audience through indirect communication by the actors. They prove that subdued conversation, subtle gestures, character emotions, and reading between the lines are just as powerful as any straight talk. They reveal much while telling you little.

I’ll warn you that this film is not for everyone. The tension of this film is subtle and the movie is slow moving. The audience, much like the characters, experiences little relief during this trip. The ending, like other Reichardt/Raymond films is more ambiguous than conclusive.

I preferred Raymond and Reichardt’s collaboration on “Old Joy” (my review here) and “Wendy and Lucy” (my review here) over “Meek’s Cutoff” I was left a little unsatisfied by “Meek’s Cutoff” but still thought it was a fine effort and a great portrayal of travel by wagon train. Film buffs looking for something understated and a little different should check this movie out.


104 min


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