Friday, May 13, 2011

Westward ho -- or maybe not

A surprising look at the journey West.
If you're looking for an old fashioned indie that bends over backward to show the hardships of life on the frontier, you'll do no better than Meek's Cutoff, director Kelly Reichardt's starkly realized look at a small group of settlers traversing the country in covered wagons.

At first, it looks as if Reichardt only wants to underscore the difficulties of pioneer life: choking dust, the ceaseless creak of wagon wheels and the drudgery of moving across forbidding terrain. If there were contests for movie authenticity, Reichardt would stack-up as a clear favorite.

Reichardt's frontier atmospherics can be absorbing in their own right, serving as a gritty antidote to the robust mythology that dominates our imaginations when it comes to the West. But Reichardt has a story to tell, as well.

The setup is simple enough: A man named Meek (Bruce Greenwood) serves as a guide for three families that are headed west. Meek thinks his work his first-rate, but the families under his guidance begin to wonder whether he knows what he's doing. When it becomes apparent that the travelers are lost, trust in Meek erodes, and when the would-be settlers capture an Indian (Rod Rondeaux), they face decisions that could spell life or death.

The families must decide how to treat the Indian. Even more distressing, they must determine whether they can trust him. They're running low on water, and are uncertain about whether to rely on the Indian, who presumably knows the land. The alternative posed by Meek, who leads the anti-Indian charge, is to kill the captive.

Reichardt's strong ensemble cast includes Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan, all of whom have been properly dirtied up for the occasion.

Give yourself a chance to become accustomed to the rhythms of Meek's Cutoff . and you'll find a movie that not only tells a tantalizing story, but manages to sneak up on you in the bargain.

Meek's Cutoff takes us on a challenging journey; we eventually realize what all the slow-moving realism was about: Reichardt puts us on the same plane as her characters so that we begin to think along with them, wondering how in the hell it's possible to survive the vast indifference of the land.


Marty Mapes said...

Sounds like Hitchcock's Lifeboat.

Anonymous said...

It's a truly dumb film--at best a horribly flawed attempt. The "pros" of it being "realistic" is that it was actually filmed in eastern Oregon; but the cons are basically everything else! The real Meeks disaster of 1845 involved over 200 wagons and 1000 people. This movie tries to hook us with 10 people! Who the hell CARES what happens to 10 people on the Oregon Trail? Also, there were no Indian encounters like that depicted in the movie, with the Meeks' train. This movie could have been decent, as shot, it is largely laughable, made by easterners as what they THINK was "realistic." It is not.