Tuesday 20 June 2017

Movie Review: Meek's Cutoff (2010)

A ponderous Western, Meek's Cutoff recreates life on the trail, and mostly reveals how boring it must have been.

It's 1845, in Oregon. A small group of travelers, including couples Emily and Solomon Tetherow (Michelle Williams and Will Patton) and Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan), is crossing hostile, desert-like territory, led by renowned guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Despite the women being confined to a subservient role, Emily begins to voice her opinion that Meek is actually lost. With the group running low on water, the sense of unease increases as day after day they move slowly through arid terrain and a succession of nondescript ridges.

The group dynamics change when they capture a lone Indian (Rod Rondeaux) who had been stalking them. The Indian cannot speak English, but may offer them a way to water, or may lead them into an ambush. Meek favours killing him, but Emily insists that he live. The travelers carry on, this time following the native, unsure of their fate.

An independent production directed by Kelly Reichardt, Meek's Cutoff is inspired by real events, and fully invests in a sense of realism. This is a slow-moving journey that starts and ends on the trail, with limited character definition and an emphasis on the physical rigours of opening up the west by walking across uncharted lands. Filmed in an old-fashioned boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, there is little plot to speak of, the people remain mostly sketches, and on-screen events consist mostly of people moving slowly across barren terrain. The six bulls pulling the three wagons are given almost as much prominence as the humans.

While there is educational value in accurately portraying the ordeals of the frontier, as a cinematic viewing experience Meek's Cutoff lacks almost everything necessary for engagement. The travelers are barely distinguishable, the repetitive drudgery is grinding, many scenes of dialogue are intentionally inaudible, and a good one third of the film takes places at night in barely-lit scenes. It's almost as though Reichardt sets out to make the 104 minutes as tiresome as possible to elicit sympathy for her group of migrants.

An indicative sequence has Emily needing to fire two musket shots into the air as a signal. This being 1845, the musket requires an elaborate procedure to reload. Emily's entire cumbersome multi-step method to load the powder, ready the gun and fire the second shot is captured by Reichardt's static camera over what seems like an eternity to make the point that firing more than one shot was no easy matter. Informative, but hardly inspirational.

Meek's Cutoff offers a few points of interest, but insufficient redeeming features to ease the slow motion agony on both sides of the screen.

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