Friday, October 21, 2011

Meek's Cutoff

Do you have an unusual taste in movies? Are you looking for something off the beaten path—shall we say something unconventional? Then I have a little gem you might be interested in, Meeks Cutoff. The film is based upon actual historical figures and true events. Meek’s Cutoff is from acclaimed director, Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy).

Let me be clear. This film is not for everybody. It’s very slow. Did I say slow? I mean verrrry slow. In fact, it crawls. If you are looking for action, look elsewhere. If, on the other hand, you are interested in a film that builds tension, fear, and uncertainty, while at the same time offering up a heavy dose of mood, Meek’s Cutoff is for you. The Washington Post describes the film as “a mesmerizing, cinematic journey…thoroughly redefines the American western”. I whole heartedly agree.

Meek’s Cutoff takes place in 1845 in the early days of the Oregon Trail. Mountain man Stephen Meek, played by Bruce Greenwood, is leading a group of pioneers into the Oregon territory by means of a short cut that he claims will offer easy access across the mountains. What should have taken two weeks has now stretched into five weeks. Tension among the settlers has increased as precious water reserves run scare and supplies start to dwindle.

The men, lead by Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton), begin to question whether Meek knows the way. The trail crosses the high desert country of Eastern Oregon and, with no landmarks, the settlers begin to wonder if they are lost. Making matters worse is the possibility of a hostile Indian attack. Meek and Solomon capture a Native American who has been following the group. As a result, alliances begin to shift. The women, lead by Emily Tetherow, the wife of Solomon, begin to openly question Meek’s intentions. Should they kill the potentially hostile Indian or trust him to lead them to water? Or do they continue to put their trust in Meek.

It’s a slow burner but an interesting character study. With the squeaky wheels and the blowing wind, Director Kelly Reichardt, captures our imagination as to what it must have been like travelling through such an isolated and dangerous landscape. Death could be lurking around any corner.

Although this may be a low-key approach to filmmaking; nevertheless, Meek’s Cutoff manages to fill each frame with interesting and captivating images. The sage brush, blue skies and stark landscapes pop and explode on the screen, thanks to outstanding cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt.

Meek’s Cutoff offers one of the most realistic presentations of what life must have been like on the Oregon Trail. The film feels real and genuine, not your typical Hollywood western. The movie has received a significant amount of critical acclaim. For a relatively unknown film, it has played at the Sundance, Venice, and Toronto film festivals.

Meek’s Cutoff is unusual in its portrayal of the strong-willed women, who were not afraid to speak their mind. The women are just as strong and capable as the men. This is a different view which is not found in most typical westerns from this historical time period. Michelle Williams is excellent of her role of Emily Tetherow. You certainly get the message. Without the women, the men folk would be lost. Michelle Williams, a two-time Academy Award nominee, also collaborated with Director Kelly Reichardt’s last film, Wendy and Lucy.

One of the other things you can’t help but notice is the importance that God played in the daily lives of the pioneers. They called out to him for both sustenance and direction. The film also offers a fair dose of Bible reading and prayer.

Meek’s Cutoff presents an interesting look at how different cultures and ethnic groups interact and relate to each other. Most of our westerns have presented only a one-dimensional view. We know the pioneers are afraid and suspicious of the Native Americans. But what about the Native Americans. What did they think about the strange people coming into their lands? What did they want? Why are they here? It must have been frightening to them as well. This is a view that is rarely ever presented in other westerns.

If you are a history buff, you’re going to love this film. Or if you have discriminating tastes in film, you’ll want to check out Meek’s Cutoff.

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