The Oregon Fail

Meek’s Cutoff is no shortcut

The epitome of form as message, the silent and sparse first seven minutes of director Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff quietly contrasts the brutality of life on the Oregon Trail in 1845 with lyric and beautiful glimpses of unspoiled American landscapes. The film’s fitting first spoken words, a Christian dinner prayer recited by a child, gracefully remind viewers of the Puritanical fire that helped fuel the settlers drive across Native American lands. The meager religious ritual also foreshadows the microcosmic clash of faith that follows. Well, perhaps clash is too strong a word for a film this soft-handed, as the minuscule conflict that ensues is more like a symbolic, historical pillow fight. The film opens shortly after a grievous miscalculation. A small band of Midwest migrants apparently hired the hobo-bearded Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to guide them to a shortcut through the desert. A teller of tall tales and infrequent bather, Meek appears as trustworthy as a drooling, skinny crocodile. Emily (Michelle Williams), easily the most intelligent and composed of the traveling tribe, loathes Meek, thus the audience is inclined to do the same. The men of the group, including Soloman (Will Patton), Thomas (Paul Dano) and William (Neal Huff), discuss a mid-desert hanging before determining that they can’t quite decide if Meek is a full-on villain or just masterfully incompetent. Just as water supplies are dwindling and desperation is rising, the bunch stumbles upon and captures a lone Native American (Rod Rondeaux). While Meek argues for the immediate extermination of the “Indian,” Emily and Soloman quickly piece together that he may be their only ticket to water and survival. At the mercy of two potentially ill-intended guides, one who speaks a foreign language and the other who speaks in flowery riddles, the question for the piecemeal band of settlers-turned-survivors isn’t who they trust more, but who frightens them the least. Much as Wolfgang Petersen was able to channel the gut-clutching claustrophobia of submarine living with Das Boot, Reichardt leverages seemingly endless minutes of squeaky wagon wheels and silent, stone-faced walking to convey the wretched life of American settlers. Her lens paints a portrait of harrowing beauty. But Meek’s Cutoff isn’t merely a sympathy poem for settler life; the interplay between the nameless native and the Christian cross-country clan takes on a nearly horror movie feel, with Meek and the Indian trading off in the role of the “monster.” The problem is that writer Jonathan Raymond seems to have penned casting-sheet footnotes of characters and not full biographies. Although Williams turns in another fiercely real, subtly intense performance, neither her character nor any of the others are developed beyond a few adjectives. The contemplative reflection that Reichardt clearly yearns to spark is ultimately undermined by the shallowness of her posse. And then there’s the matter of the sure-to-be-divisive ending. While champions of artistic cinema decry the perpetual spoon-feeding of mainstream fare, there are “fair” and “unfair” open endings. That is to say, even a talented artist who has crafted a brilliant film can be blasted for a conclusion that feels arbitrary and unearned. Meek’s Cutoff has a lazy ending shaped to feel meaningful. It doesn’t prompt any new questions that weren’t already being contemplated an hour prior. Thankfully, a bad ending does not inherently a bad film make… Meek’s Cutoff is exceptional for its quiet power and can mostly be forgiven for its faults, and Reichardt and Williams continue to prove a remarkably dynamic pairing. Not quite as praiseworthy as some have proclaimed but definitely worth the time invested, this indie Western is an able consideration of failures both geographical and human. Grade = B

posted at 11:59 am
on Sunday, May 22nd, 2011

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