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Meek's Cutoff
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74 out of 92 people found the following review useful:

The least you need to know

Author: jmc4769 from Atlanta, Georgia
18 May 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This movie is much loved by the critics, but you know there is some kind of problem when the critics meter on stands at 87 while the audience meter is at 65. Personally, I don't think it's a bad movie, but before you decide to see it, you at least need to know that:

--It is a very minimalist movie, even more so than Somewhere (which I loved). You don't even get a good look at the actors' faces until 15 minutes or so into the movie. The dialog is so sparse that the actors probably didn't need to start studying the script until the night before shooting began. (Don't be fooled by the trailer--it contains most of the dialog in the movie.) The screen is almost completely black in the many barely illuminated night scenes. You can hear the dialog, but you can't see much of their faces or see what they are doing. Although these scenes are highly realistic, the director seems to have forgotten that film is a visual medium. And too much of the dialog is unintelligible. I couldn't decide whether the problem was poor enunciation by the actors, poor placement of the microphones, or both.

--This is one of those "make up your own ending" movies. After you spend 104 minutes watching these people trek through a parched landscape looking for water, you long for answers. The dramatic tension in the movie arises primarily from not knowing whether the Indian they have captured will lead them to water or into a fatal ambush. But don't expect any clear-cut resolution. Yes, there are clues at the end. But some viewers will be unhappy to discover that there is no unambiguous answer to the central question of the movie.

With that said, I still think Meek's Cutoff is worth seeing because it gives you a good feel for what life was like in a wagon train. The film is not so much a drama as a reenactment of life on the trail. No matter that the dialog is sparse. No matter that there is no real ending. The director isn't much interested in character development or storyline anyway. She just wants to put you in the shoes of these pioneers for a few days. And on this level, the movie works very well. Although it may not be entertaining (after all, life on the trail was boring most of the time), it is informative.

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80 out of 128 people found the following review useful:

A near masterpiece

Author: ecstatic-tickle from Ireland
22 April 2011

'Who knows what's over that hill? Could be water, could be an army of heathens…blood or water' – the words of Stephen Meek, a hardened pioneer of the Western front, whose name is more than a slight contradiction of character. The year is 1845 and Meek is the guide for members of three families who have left the settlements on the thriving Eastern Seaboard of America and are now undertaking the last leg of their long journey, through Oregon desert. Although they are at the brink of their destination – the uncertainty of their route, the need for food and water, and more than anything the threat of Indigenous tribes – is deeply felt.

Kelly Reichardt has been an intriguing presence on the independent scene for several years now. While sparse and potentially esoteric, her previous films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy felt very unique, rich in atmosphere and subtext. This one, shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio – this is clearly not about gorgeous panoramic Western vistas, but an arid environment and sense of isolation, constriction and fear that the characters can't escape. The cinematography is enveloping – every image and sound has clarity of intent and authenticity that's impressive, but not mechanical, there's a level of artistry here that's seamless.

Reichardt has done a remarkable job. The way in which we first encounter this group has an almost voyeuristic dimension. We observe them bringing their belongings across the river, cages and basket across, a woman pregnant. The classic wagon vehicle. We see the necessity they feel to wade through and continue on their journey no matter what. Reichardt's not interested in fulfilling the conventions of the genre or even screen writing at large – nothing is indicated, nothing is too obvious – and the decisions she makes in terms structure and thematic elements are felt on a subliminal level, right up until the final shot. By defying expectations of the genre and her film becomes all the more engrossing.

This is quite a simple story about people with simple customs and practical needs – driven by a need to fulfill their 'Manifest Destiny' – the inherent right they feel to colonize this new land. Setting off on the journey, Meek himself tries to enforce his high status, telling the youngsters cautionary tales of bears and brutes and emitting a seemingly affable macho persona. For the rest of the group, there is a sense of communal obligation and not too much time for soul-searching or camaraderie. Reichardt does not draw attention to anything - whether it be the name actors she has playing these very pared down roles or the multitude of themes and messages running beneath the surface.

Among the eclectic ensemble of actors in the film is Michelle Williams, Reichardt's muse previously on Wendy and Lucy – who continues to go from strength to strength in proving her versatility and conviction as an actress. Here she plays Emily Tethero – a young mother on this trek, and eventual moral compass for the audience. She's invisible in the role - in the best sense; there is no big announcement or introductory close-up of her arrival on screen as 'Two-Time Academy Award®-nominee Michelle Williams', now playing dress-up in the desert – the blatant heroine of the piece. No, Reichardt is smart and knows how to treat the audience with intelligence, she does not indicate anything. However, as the narrative unfolds, Emily's increasing speculation over their route, her concerns about water and private ideas of gender roles makes her an adversary for Meek.

These tensions come to a head however when they encounter a Native American Indian. From the moment this happens – Williams' character immediately decides to take very practical action to the threat. But soon enough this Cherokee man becomes a possession for the group, an entity they fear so intensely yet cannot let go of – they interrogate him to find out the route, to know of any more like him who may attempt to destroy. The fear of the Other is palpable and the ultimate intent of the film is revealed.

However, Emily Tethero is the one who listens to him – she hears him praying despite not understanding his words, she also repairs his shoe. She begins to become more lenient with him, despite her upbringing and societal beliefs. As the group's situation begins to become more desperate - these various gestures and allowances enrage Meek – with a turbulent dynamic beginning to form and some consequence and yet it never descends into hysterics.

If the job of the artist is to deepen the mystery - then Kelly Reichardt has succeeded. By the end of this film there are no clear answers. There is no sense of the world being set to rights by this story, the film does not presume that what it is has to say about race relations (still relevant in 2011 and beyond) is closing the book on the topic, not for the characters, nor the audience. The film is not about these people's ultimate destination because the sense of closure and satisfaction felt at the end of most movies is an illusion - an entertaining one, which we can suspend our disbelief to enjoy, but an illusion nonetheless. Here that kind of compromise is not necessary, and to witness this on screen is like a window into the past.

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48 out of 70 people found the following review useful:

An unorthodox take on the Western

Author: Dharmendra Singh from Birmingham, England
15 April 2011

Its unorthodox – 'revisionist' – take on the Western will stimulate more debate than the story itself. It's sure to be praised for its presumed artistic qualities, but I watch Westerns for their brio and sense of fun, never as art.

My verdict is that 'Meek's Cutoff' is slow – definitely slow and not 'well-paced' – desultory and monotonous. And yet every time the film was on the cusp of being disengaging, it did something to regain my attention. I saw the film twice and still couldn't decide what it was about. This is a film of suggestion. We're responsible for how the story ends.

After a wordless opening, we encounter a motley crew, some Irish but mostly American. They're being escorted, along with their few wagons, donkeys, horses and oxen, across the beautiful and baleful Oregon plains to a valley, where we assume they will settle. Their escort is Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a loquacious, over-friendly cowboy, who has a tacit propensity for violence.

An etching by one of the band (prolific youngster Paul Dano) on a dead tree updates us on their progress: 'Lost' (something inhabitants never are in Westerns; their sense of geography is always mind-bogglingly good). They've been travelling for several days in the wrong direction and are in desperate need of water. Meek insists they will reach their destination soon.

Film factotum Kelly Reichardt, here director and editor, keeps us in the dark for much of the film. The camera pans back when there is conversation. What dialogue we do hear is muffled and limited (or incomprehensible when spoken by Meek). It's like we're eavesdropping and aren't supposed to know something.

A solitary Native American is spotted. His presence in these deathly quiet lands frightens the band. He is captured by Meek and Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton). Some argue that he will lead them to more Indians, so should be killed; but Solomon reasons that he can be used to lead them to water and their destination.

The band continues their voyage, taking 'The Indian' with them. Still nothing happens. Gradually, an ominous sense creeps in, made palpable by Jeff Grace's eerie score and Chris Blauvelt's atmospheric cinematography. (Both men have played second fiddle on big films, but show their competence as lead fiddlers here.) Suddenly the possibilities abound. Is that a smile 'The Indian' affects when one of the wagons is demolished? Does he plan to ambush them? Will the band ever reach the valley?

Apart from film students and die-hard Western fans, I can't tell who to recommend this critically acclaimed film to. I found the vistas beautiful to behold and I appreciated the tranquility. There's a faintly mystical quality. But I found it plodding and I can't forgive the ending, which I thought was criminally abrupt.

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34 out of 44 people found the following review useful:

To slow and never ending

Author: mickerick2000 from United Kingdom
14 September 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

for me it was a complete let down.. For 2 hours i watched them walk along the desert and i was wondering will they find water, Who will be the first to die and will the Indian lead them to water or an ambush. Well the film finished and i had none of the answers so what was the point of the film? why put questions in your head then leave you to make your own answers.Maybe we were supposed to re-live the way settlers made the journey but surely if you walk through Indian country you have someone ahead scouting for water or Indians and who would keep a heavy table in a wagon and leave gold in the desert and how did they mark it ? a stick with some cloth wrapped around it, They were lost how they gonna find it again they had no map come-on they would have filled just about everything they had.Im sorry but to me it was like watching a fish swim around a bowl,I waited for a climax and didn't get one,The most exiting thing in the whole film was an empty wagon rolling down a hill

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38 out of 55 people found the following review useful:

What will Meek inherit?

Author: crazy-bananas from Glasgow, Scotland
24 February 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is guiding three married couples and a few 'young uns' across the frontiers of 19th century America. His 'cutoff' refers to a shortcut that he has led them on in their route to their new homes and fortunes. Before they get there, they must deal with the guide's apparent lack of skills and direction, and what they will encounter along the way. Greenwood turns in a very good performance, in that he is extremely unlikeable, but I think it is fair to say that this film is stolen by the two performances of Michelle Williams and Shirley Henderson, both very well suited to their roles. Some critics have deemed the film a little too slow, but I think that is unfair - the pace is perfect, given the audience is accompanying horses and wagons. If you liked 'Old Joy' by the same director, you should enjoy her new work (if you didn't see it you should check it out). Dialogue is sparse, but there is a lot of meaning in the things the characters say - the ending is open to interpretation, so thinking about what you've heard may point you in the right direction.

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35 out of 52 people found the following review useful:

Beautiful non-narrative film

Author: Nikolai1968 from Oz
11 December 2011

It is interesting reading all of these angry people here, who seem to appreciate having seen an amazing film but don't understand why it does not have a 'three act structure' or Hero's journey. If you are a fan of early Michael Haneke or even Tarkovsky (to a lesser extent), then you will like this film. It is a very gentle observational piece which takes its time to even let you hear human voices. It wants you to feel the wind on the scrub desert or to hear the bubbling of the river.

To make a film like that, especially in America where the audience is weened on cleanly prepared stories that have beginnings, middles and ends, is brave, stubborn and amazingly lucky that Kelly Reichardt was able to raise the money to make it.

Fantastic. Unique, Beautiful.

But just do not expect to be 'told' what happens next, because nothing massively important actually does. Just like life really.

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31 out of 45 people found the following review useful:


Author: NHUpnorth from United States
15 July 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This sort of film makes me wonder whether the critics actually saw the film before telling us it was "worthy" of our viewing. I have been to eastern Oregon. Yes, it's mainly desert. I suppose there were people foolish enough to try to cross in summer during the 1840s under the guidance of a less-than-trustworthy guide. But who cares? There wasn't any sense of adventure -- just non-stop wandering, blaming and worrying.

Watching this film was a seemingly endless journey of its own. Maybe that's why some people like it: the feeling of desperation is captured well enough. The pioneers were desperate to get to their destination, moving through the same colorless frame, scene after scene after scene; the five people in the theater with me were desperate to get this movie behind them, scene after scene. I have literally enjoyed watching paint dry more than watching this movie; at least painting is creative and useful. This film may appeal to those with a lot of time to waste.

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22 out of 34 people found the following review useful:

Goes Nowhere, Means Nothing

Author: mauvemoonlight from United States
2 June 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

If you enjoy watching films that have absolutely no conclusion to them whatsoever - then this is the movie for you.

It crawls along at a snail's pace, moving as slowly as the wagons that were going westward and it has no ending. We just walk along with these desperate people mile after gritty mile getting nowhere.

The characters are so poorly formed and so poorly introduced to the audience, I never did really sort out who all of them were, or their relationships to each other. As it turned out it didn't make a hair's worth of difference.

Several of the scenes are at night, where the screen is so black you wonder if the film broke.

The plot, what little there was, involves three wagons of people going westward. We have one couple that has a young boy named Jimmy, another couple with an older man and younger woman, apparently fairly newly married. The third couple I never got acquainted with enough to know who they were or anything about them, not that we ever learn much about any of these people. One of the women is pregnant but like everything else in this movie this fact plays no role in the film - either in character development, plot or anything else.

There is also their guide, a Mr. Meek, with a bushy beard and even bushier hair down to his shoulders. His hair looked as if it had not seen a comb since the day he was born.

Meek has apparently convinced these 3 wagon loads into taking some shortcut, but the further they go with him the more they doubt he has a clue as to where they're at.

They encounter a lone Indian and have hopes perhaps he will lead them eventually to water, although some of them are convinced he will lead them into an ambush. He goes stumbling off and they go stumbling after him. Then after several miles of this, we come to the words "The End." This has to be one of the worst films I've ever seen.

ONE STAR - and it really doesn't even deserve that.

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11 out of 15 people found the following review useful:

Meek's Cutoff

Author: Martin Teller from Portland OR
30 December 2011

It is telling that Reichardt chose to shoot this film in Academy ratio. Right away we know this will not be a romantic image of the Old West, with breathtaking, expansive vistas (although the cinematography is lovely in its own way). Instead, we are constricted, claustrophobic, uncertain of what lies just beyond our limited field of vision. It is a film of quiet desperation, hard-scrabble survival in painstaking detail, and growing mistrust. In some ways it evokes the horror genre, perhaps something like a subdued BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, as the severity of the situation deepens and doubt takes hold. The film manages a sense of gritty realism without resorting to overstating the harsh conditions for dramatic effect. The travelers aren't stumbling around filthy and bloody, they maintain a semblance of civility even as the promise of civilization seems more and more doubtful. The ending will no doubt frustrate many, but didn't bother me one bit.

As for the cast, Michelle Williams impresses me again with her thoughtful restraint, and I'm always pleased to see Shirley Henderson. Greenwood does well with a part that could easily have called too much attention to itself, and for once I didn't hate Paul Dano. The score is wonderful, as haunting and sparse as the landscape. I adored WENDY AND LUCY, and quite liked OLD JOY (in fact, that film seems better in hindsight than I gave it credit for). Reichardt is emerging as one of American cinema's most distinctive and worthwhile voices. I look forward to her next endeavor.

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31 out of 55 people found the following review useful:

A Cuckoo Tease of a Movie

Author: bainst from out of bounds
6 May 2011

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

If you like nearly two hours of dramatic build up with no climax, you will enjoy this film. From the first two laborious shots of a wagon train crossing a river, you can easily guess what you're in for...but if you've seen the trailer, you might be hoping for more. Unfortunately, what there is of characterization and hints at a plot are only window dressing for a two hour distilled view of what it was like to travel in a wagon train in the 1850s. **Spoiler Alert**: It sucked.

I've marked this review as having spoilers, because I'm going to tell you the details of the film, but in revealing them, it's not much more of a spoiler than telling you that a police drama is going to have guns and crime in it. This movie has lots and lots and lots of walking, dust, and concerns over having enough water. That's it. There's some great acting, and some nice cinematography, but there is little insight into the human condition (no more than you might get from sitting on a bench at the local mall for two hours...possibly less). There are two or three tense scenes, but they all, just like the movie as a whole, come to nothing.

I had a second review for this movie in mind, because after seeing the ending, I saw a very obvious connection to ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. The writer basically dressed Nurse Ratched in a beard and made the inmates into a wagon train; their search for sanity is now a quest for proto-Portland; and the symbol of the suffocating pillow is replaced by a lone tree.

I can only guess that the writer could not come up with any ending that wasn't obvious, and opted instead for having no ending at all. "Let the viewer decide" is something I can enjoy in a few movies, but with the constant build up of tension in this movie, the ending felt more like an unfulfilled promise.

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