Meek’s Cutoff

movie review

Identifying filmmaker Kelly Reichardt as a minimalist is like calling the Pacific a body of water. Her spare, barely-there films have steadily built a following in recent years, culminating in critical plaudits for Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. Her latest film is the first to boast a cast of well-known actors, led by Michelle Williams (who starred in Wendy and Lucy), Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, and Shirley Henderson, but there has been no softening of Reichardt’s approach. Meek’s Cutoff proceeds at a deliberately slow pace, which could send some viewers weaned on comic-book movies running up the aisles screaming.

Even I had a difficult time immersing myself in the picture; I may have been distracted on the night I saw it, and this is a film that demands complete concentration. But after a point I had to marvel at what Reichardt had achieved: a vivid and immediate portrait of—

—three pioneer families making their way across a harsh expanse of Oregon territory in 1845. When water becomes scarce and the women silently walk behind their wagons, to lighten the load for their oxen, while the menfolk make decisions about which route to follow, you sense that this is really the way it was.

Indeed, reading background stories about the production is as fascinating as the film itself. The actors participated in a week-long “pioneer camp” to transform themselves from 21st century performers into 19th century settlers of the uncharted West.

In the film’s press notes, production designer David Doernberg says, “At Pioneer Camp all the actors learned to lead oxen. The animal wranglers, a group of genuine badass cowboys, taught them the proper terminology: ‘Haw’ (turn left), ‘Gee’ (turn right) as they prodded them with sticks with the wagons bobbing along behind. They did all of this wearing their long dresses and wool pants in heat that was over one hundred degrees… We set up a collection of tools, blankets, pots, and pans, sacks of beans and all of the things the emigrants might need. Each couple ‘shopped’ in our warehouse and learned how to pack their wagon. Kelly wanted each couple to have a distinct feel to their wagon and campsite.”

The performances reflect the film’s integrity; the actors work as an ensemble and there are no Hollywood moments. I don’t think any movie has ever made an audience feel so connected to everyday life, and the stark realities of survival, on the trail before.

That said, Meek’s Cutoff may not qualify as great drama, at least not in a conventional sense. Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond’s approach to storytelling is elliptical, to put it mildly. But even if the film is difficult to warm to, or fully embrace, when it’s over you feel as if you’ve had a deep and resonant experience. How many conventional movies can say the same?


  1. Jim says:

    About Travis' objections: the movie, whether you like it or not, was remarkably true to the facts of the journey these people took. You have to remember that these folks had to pick a guide, if they did so, without really knowing that much about him. Meek supposedly knew the territory, but after some weeks the people he was guiding realised he just didn't. By that time you can't just pick up and turn around. As for the lake business, look at Akali Lake, the largest alkili lake in that area (SE Oregon). It has no feeder streams, getting its water by rainwater. That's a very dry area, and other alkili lakes there have similar feeds (one has an underground spring, which doesn't keep it from being toxic to humans; in fact it's worse than Alkili Lake).

    I can certainly see a lot of people not liking this type of movie, but to do so on the basis that it isn't realistic when these things actually happened to the group guided by Meek is silly.

  2. Travis says:

    A deep and resonant experience? Surely you jest..

    I found this film deeply disappointing. And I’m a sucker for westerns of any ilk, and the less conventional, the better. But this film is elliptical to the point of madness. Clearly, dropping the viewer into a narrative stream already at full-flow, as it were, and then leaving us at the point where it dries up into complete uncertainty, was meant as an existential statement of some kind. The hitch is that genuine existential insights require genuine existential situations or dilemmas (or at least representative ones), and this motley crew of characters is non-representative to the core: they are all dumber than rocks. An indian who can’t hide or evade the clumsiest and noisiest trackers on the planet? Pioneers who can’t decide whether or not to trust their lives to a trail guide even when he can’t tell them anything about the trail? Experienced wilderness travelers who don’t know that any large body of alkaline water has to be fed somewhere by substantially sized streams or rivers of potable water? If there was ever a group of morons who deserved to perish in the wild, it was this group. So why should we care about them, and what’s to be learned from watching this film? Nothing at all. This film doesn’t demand “complete concentration” as much as it demands complete indulgence.

    If Reichardt had invested as much effort into writing an intelligent screenplay as in training actors to authentically lead oxen or pack a wagon, then this movie might have deserved the praise critics are giving it. But as it stands, this king simply has no clothes. While it’s indeed refreshing to see films with a slow pace and a careful eye to detail and character study, that pace still has to lead somewhere, and the details still have to add up to something. But in this film, none of them do. All the film’s tiny virtues leave the viewer exactly where she began: in the middle of nowhere.

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