There is very little to enjoy about Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff.
That’s not to say it’s meant to be enjoyable but the way critics reacted to the film when it was released earlier this year, you’d think the film was the second coming of The Searchers. Let me clarify this very briefly: it is not The Searchers.
Meek’s Cutoff is not a good film. Nor is it a profound film. It is merely an empty film that mirrors the vacant Oregon desert its characters are travelling through. The year is 1845. Three families are travelling in a wagon caravan on the Oregon Trail in hopes of finding a better life on the West Coast, but their guide Stephen Meek (Greenwood) has led them astray. As well, a solitary Native American (Rod Rondeaux) is following them and the caravan is scared more will follow. However, after the men capture the Native and aim to kill him, Emily Tetherow (Williams) saves his life in hopes that he’ll lead them back to the trail.
This sounds like it may make for some interesting conflict, but that would be too easy and entertaining. Instead of mining the tension between the characters in a desperate situation, most of the film is devoted to endless shots of walking in the strong desert winds and nighttime chats at the campfire where none of the characters are visible due to the lack of light. That’s not to say nothing happens throughout the entire film — there’s one scene of confrontation in which Williams’ Tetherow asserts herself with a rifle as demonstrated on the film’s poster — but it all leads nowhere: to more walking and talking and looking sad and broken at the unforgiving landscape. There are stakes here since the desert could kill any of the characters at any moment, but these threatening conditions are never capitalized upon. The film ends mostly where it began except with a death and a disagreement peppered in to make it seem like some progress has occurred.
As for performances, all the actors are quite convincing in their roles but there isn’t a fully realized individual among them. They are given little to do and nothing to work with beyond the costumes and the landscape. We learn nothing of their backstory, nothing of their motivations, no hint of a vital spark that makes them more than mere decorations in the desert. They merely fit into critical roles in which the director and writer can make some sort of statement about the historical reality — whatever that statement may be.
The only recommendation I can make about Meek’s Cutoff is that it seems very realistic. The situation is dire and uneventful and the roles the characters’ inhabit (especially the women) seem honest and unglamourized. But in its slavish fidelity to historical detail, the film has no narrative interest. It’s a historical portrait, nothing more.
Meek’s Cutoff is most certainly not the cinematic treasure that critics have lauded it as. It is a boring movie, plain and simple. Reading a short paragraph in a history textbook about the Oregon Trail would be as informative and beneficial as watching Meek’s Cutoff, and it will save you 104 minutes of precious time in the process.
Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
Directed by Kelly Reichardt; written by Jonathan Raymond; starring Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano and Rod Rondeaux.
3 out of 10