Thursday, May 5, 2011

Review - Meek's Cutoff

In 1845 led by experienced fur trapper and explorer Stephen Meek, a group of emigrant settlers pushing west find themselves lost after taking an alternate route off the Oregon Trail. The emigrants traveled southwest into the Oregon High Desert trying to avoid rumored run-ins with Walla Walla and Cayuse Indians in the Blue Mountains only to instead find themselves in desperate search for water and quickly running out of supplies under the harsh landscape.

I went to college wanting to be a history teacher. All of my upper division focus and research was on Manifest Destiny and the New West movement. Anything having to do with the expansion and development of the western American territories post of the Louisiana Purchase I wanted to soak up and learn as much about. Enter "Meek's Cutoff," a film as a historian, I ate up. Not so much because of the story and its historical significance but because of the way it completely submerses the audience into the experience. Historically, the film is actually awful at explaining what you are witnessing. There is no setup whatsoever and it finishes off with what could be mistaken as an ambiguous ending. The drama is more of a companion piece for someone who already knows the historical background to the infamous Oregon Trail blazed by Stephen Meek and a number of emigrant settlers across the rugged desert. This is a "what they went through" and not a "lets give you a history lesson" film. While I appreciate both types, I've come to enjoy historical films that expect their viewers have a little background knowledge before going in. It allows the filmmaker to focus on the content, characters and their emotions rather than detailing all of the historical specifics.

From the first frame to the final scene director Kelly Reichardt puts the audience directly in the plight of the settlers along the Oregon Trail. Doing its best to take you through the experiences of being in a wagon train. The uncertainty, the panic and the desperation of being in a foreign stretch of land with no real bearing on which way to turn. "Meek's Cutoff" is in no hurry, actually it relishes taking its time and moving (for the most part) in real time. Most of this is done by allowing the scenes to take their time and move at the pace the settlers are moving. You feel the long hot days the emigrants push through. You suffer as if you've walked ten to twenty miles right along side them. You begin to tire due to the squeaking of the wagon wheel as it continually turns. You begin to question Meek and his overall understanding of the geography in Oregon. You'll want to scream, "how much further?" Slowly and steadily you feel the burden and torment these settlers faced crossing such an arid and unyielding terrain. The film is an arduous experience but at the same time does a polished job of subjecting the audience to the grueling move.

Trust is a big concept that is at play throughout the 104 minute period drama. Historically before this trek, Stephen Meek was considered a respectable and established explorer. This film however peers into his first venture through the Oregon desert. A trip that halfway through, the large group of over 1,000 settlers began to realize how little Meek really knew about the area. Screenwriter Jonathan Raymond was smart to scale down the number of settlers Meek leads to a comfortable size. Essentially three families. This allowed for the audience to better connect with the various settlers/families as well their growing issues with trusting Meek. We are also introduced to a Native American early on in the film. A character that further establishes the idea of trust. These settlers took a unknown path in hopes of avoiding (as they call them) savage Indians in the Blue Mountains, yet they find themselves face-to-face with one in the middle of the Oregon desert. A native that from their perspective, could know the terrain and landscape better than their so called guide.

One avenue I really appreciated in "Meek's Cutoff" is its subtlety. The film never jams any one notion or concept down the audiences throat other than the hellacious experience the settlers are living through. That doesn't mean there isn't a lot of storytelling going on, because there is, it is just done so very thoughtfully and very restrained. For instance the relationship that develops between Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) and the Indian (Rod Rondeaux). Their relationship is extremely simplistic but it speaks volumes to the story and historical background of the time.

The film and script pick and choose the choice of dialogue very carefully even though all of it is sopping with depth and emotion. Much of that emotion can be attributed to the commanding performances by the entire cast. Everyone from Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Rod Rondeaux, Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson do a remarkable job of portraying the precarious situation. Their combined performances help to make the tedious journey bearable and to each of their credit, make the characters relatable/memorable. You can read the desperation and hope on their faces at all times and that really helps to make this gut wrenching trek worth watching.

While I don't want to talk specifically about the ending I believe it is important to express how brilliant I think it is. The film closes with what some may mistake as a unfinished ending. While "Meek's Cutoff" does end ambiguously, if you know the background on the historical event nothing is left open at all. Again, the film is depicting the experience not a historical lesson and the finish just hammers home that point. The audience is left with an empty feeling one that masterfully captures the experience these emigrant settlers went through out in the High Oregon Desert.


BULL!!!! Post instruction to do a history lesson before looking at the film.

the film is based loosely on historical characters and events which are not widely known. The real Meek brought about 1000 people across that route, so its of no assistance to know the real story because this isnt it. The filmakers are engaged in telling a story. if they create a suspenseful situation, they are required to take that to some conclusion. Its not enough to expect the audience to google/wiki "Meek" or perhaps assume that Oregon's subsequent entry into the Union suggests a safe passage was reached. That the director is a woman and a darling of NYC film hipsters doesnt men that the emperor has clothes....

I would have had more satisfaction gazing at my navel than the time I wasted watching Meek's Cutoff. What a colossal heap or steaming horse manure.

If you read a little about the real events on which the film is based I believe this is the story of the little group that Meek lead after the big group decided to split. I don't know if it was only 3 families, but definitely it was not the total 1,000 people.

I enjoyed the film as it really put the viewer in the shoes of the families traveling this arduous terrain. And put them in a bind as whether they should trust the indian or their guide.

For me it was a very well done film, I personally didn't know the story before the film (I'm not from United States), so after I watched it I investigated a little and saw what happened a the end.

This movie is in a list of favorites for me.

PS. Excuse if my English has mistakes but it's not my native tongue.