The year is 1845, the earliest days of the Oregon Trail, and a wagon team of three families has hired the mountain man Stephen Meek to guide them over the Cascade Mountains. Claiming to know a short cut, Meek leads the group on an unmarked path across the high plain desert, only to become lost in the dry rock and sage. Over the coming days, the emigrants must face the scourges of hunger, thirst and their own lack of faith in each other's instincts for survival. When a Native American wanderer crosses their path, the emigrants are torn between their trust in a guide who has proven himself unreliable and a man who has always been seen as the natural enemy.Written by
Early in the film, three women are walking across the baked desert following the wagons, presumably to the west. The guide may be off course but nobody would mistake east for west. Yet the womens' shadows are to their left as they walk, and since the sun would always be in the southern sky in Oregon, they could only be walking east. A basic detail that a director should not miss. See more »
[reading from Genesis]
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. And Adam called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.
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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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