Originally Reviewed – 5/21/2011
Growing up, one of my favorite games was always Oregon Trail. The simple story of a pixilated frontier family braving the open expanses of the untamed West always filled me fascination. At first, you cruise along; you hunt for buffalo, stop at towns to buy supplies and ensure your family of travelers is well fed and medicated. After awhile though, things always go south. Two oxen die of cholera, start traveling slower. A wagon wheel looses a spoke, burn a day fixing it. Ma gets a stern case of the rickets, you slow to a crawl so she can recover. Soon, the game ceases to be a leisurely stroll through the undiscovered country; it becomes a war of attrition. Constantly juggling dwindling supplies, disease and your biggest enemy, time, you really start to feel the hardships of a trail worn traveler. What the game doesn’t do is explain what happens when you take the path not blazed. Played on a fairly steady track, you constantly move westward towards California. In the latest film by director Kelly Reichardt, you not only get a feel for the hardships facing those frontier pioneers, you become part of their family, living, breathing and sometimes even suffering through the monotony of the westward plains.
The party of travelers you reluctantly join in made up of three families, the Tetherows, played by Michelle Williams and Will Patton the Gatelys (Paul Dano , Zoe Kazan) and the Whites (Neal Huff, Shirley Henderson). The party is led down toward California by Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a crusty old veteran of the Wild West. Cocksure, unwavering and stubborn, Meek takes the family of gold seekers down a supposed shortcut that looks more and more unfamiliar at every turn. During this introductory act, you can immediately tell this is going to be a grind to get through. While the landscape and scope of this unclaimed country is stunningly photographed, the opening slow pans set the deliberate pace for the rest of the film. Reichardt is in no rush to tell the story and instead turns her patient eye towards creating suspense through stillness. Many in the audience I saw it with started to squirm after the first twenty minutes and while the lack of action can be infuriating to those unprepared, anybody who has seen Reichardt’s other work know exactly what to expect. For me, the quiet of the filmmaking made every moment, from a conversation drenched in flickering campfire light to a slow track across an acrid plain, wrought with tension. The film can be excruciating at times but if you let the stillness work its magic on you, the movie’s ultimate mood is enveloping and at times breathtaking.
Naturally, some good performances didn’t hurt either. The star of the film is Michelle Williams as the mother and head matriarch of the lead family. Her, along with her husband, played by Will Patton, are distrustful of the trail worn Meek, questioning his judgment at almost every turn. Meek has assured them that this path is the easiest route but as they progress, he becomes less and less confident of where they’re heading. Water is scarce, food is scarcer and tensions start to run high. Williams possesses a quiet intensity that colors her character with a smolder that burns beneath her pledge of duty to her husband and family. Williams plays the part to balanced perfection but once the party, at a moment of near desperation, capture a Native American with the choice to either kill him or put aside their fear and to help them fine water, she fully discovers the character’s potential. With the first half playing out almost like a living painting of a landscape, the second half deals solely with the prejudices of the traveling party. Meek wants to kill him, the father wants him to help and while I won’t spoil what the family chooses to do, the arc William’s character undergoes during the process is worth the price of admission alone.
While the ending split the audience I saw this film with in two, half enjoying, half hating, I felt that the conclusion was an appropriately ambiguous end to an emotionally challenging film. Not a film for those who need their movies all sown up in a tidy bow, Meek Cutoff is an example of high art meeting high tension. Although the film certainly isn’t for everybody, and the glacier slow pacing even caused me to sigh now and again, Reichardt is a brave filmmaker who isn’t afraid to let good actors work in a still space and for that, she has my respect. Framed much like the traveling moments of a Cormac McCarthy novel, more than once I thought, especially towards the end, that Reichardt just might be the one to direct a version of Blood Meridian, an adaptation many experts think to be impossible. Slow, tense and in the end, intellectually thought provoking, Meek’s Cutoff is a film lovers movie, a piece of quiet beauty, stunning style and exceptional emotional quality. The text scrawl of, “Jeb has died from scurvy” in Oregon Trail will never read the same again
Score – 90%