Meek’s Cutoff (2011)

Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Written by Jonathan Raymond

Most people in my generation know all about the Oregon Trail. Wow, what a great game that was! You could lose your oxen by fording the river, shoot massive amounts of buffalo and let the meat spoil. Heck, you could even catch typhoid and die. But one thing you couldn’t do was blaze your own trail. That is exactly what Stephen Meek, an experienced fur trader in Oregon, did in 1945 when the Native Americans threatened the main trail. He aided many wagon trains on to help settle the eastern and central parts of Oregon. That is the real history of it. Kelly Reichardt’s new film is the dramatized, very loose, adaptation of that history.

There are three families, with capable actors and actresses filling those roles, headed by Michelle Williams. Will Patton and Paul Dano also star. But these three families need a leader and that leader is the famous Stephen Meek, played by another vet Bruce Greenwood. Meek is directing this wagon train through the deserts of Oregon, toting an Indian with them whom they think knows where the water is. The film is very slow going and quite reflective, but it is not without its extremely tense moments.

I have only seen one other film by the highly regarded Reichardt, 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, which also stars Williams and was also written by screenwriter Jonathan Raymond, who has actually written Reichardt’s last three films. I was not as enamored with that film as some other people. However, I could see the aspects that would be so attractive to many. I feel like Meek’s Cutoff falls into that same category.

First and foremost, the cinematography is beautiful. One of the first things I noticed was the strange aspect ratio of the film, it is presented in an unconventional 1.33:1. I may be wrong, but most films these days are shot with a ratio over 2:1, for instance both Thor and X-Men: First Class, according to is 2.35:1. Although this at first took me out of the film, I found it to be a nice touch, representing the look of an old time photograph from the era. And given the lack of a widescreen quality, cinematographer Chris Blauvelt does a great job of composition in this film. Sometimes the lighting can be a little dark, but I think they were going for a natural lighting thing, but the landscapes of Oregon are captured beautifully.

The acting is fairly bland, though I always love watching Williams. There just isn’t much for the actors to do because the characters do not do much. The exception would be Greenwood as Meek. Meek is the guide who has been on one of the expeditions a few times and perhaps as a result has a screw or two lose which results in a loose tongue and knack for skepticism. For the most part, the 104 minutes of the film are concentrated on the search for water; first on their own, and then with the Indian prisoner whom they are all nervous about.

In actuality, the quite, reserved style of the film lends itself quite well to the building of tension throughout given the circumstances of the wagon train. But at the same time, many will take these long moments of silence and shots of nature and characters doing nothing as boring as opposed to beautiful moments of tense reflection for both the characters and the audience members. I think I was able to achieve both during my viewing.

Reichardt’s style is one that does not seem to agree with me, though her work has affected me with fleeting instances of truly profound and meaningful filmmaking. I just think that at the end of the day her work is not something that I will find myself coming back to. But that is fine because there is plenty out there that will bring me back to it, just as there are plenty of people that will see this film and it will bring them back to it time and again. Then again there are also those that will call it terrible and just utterly boring. I think it is more than that, and at times much more than that, but don’t expect to see me talking about this more in the future, except maybe the cinematography.

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