Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton
Review: One of my great idols in writing, the incomparable Roger Ebert, has a saying about certain movies that “it’s not about what it’s about it’s how it is about it.” This is a whimsical way of saying that some movies aren’t necessarily about a specific story arc, but moreso about the experience of the film itself. Some movies exist to transport you to their world and plot takes a backseat to giving you that experience. Such a description is befitting of ‘Meek’s Cutoff.’
The film begins by showing us a group of people looking straight out of the old computer game ‘Oregon Trail.’ The movie takes place in 1845 and really tries to give the audience the look and feel of how things were in this time, specifically in trying to find their way, as a group, to the new west of America. Unfortunately for this crew, the person they hired to guide them across the county (Meek from the title), has led them astray and they are far from where they know and are not sure how to get back.
The husbands and wives within the group are getting a little anxious as they haven’t seen water in a few days and their supply is running low. The heat is bearing down on the group and it’s getting harder and harder to cross their terrain. Their predicament gets even more complicated when they run into a Native American Indian on their trail. Meek and the groups de facto leader run off to capture this intruder before he can return to his tribe to tell the others of the group and threaten their existence.
It is quite the shocking event to the crew to see a Native American. In our world everything is so globalized it’s hard to imagine seeing someone from a different culture that you have no information about. Nowadays we have ’60 Minutes,’ ‘20/20,’ and of course, the internet to spew different information from all directions. One might be surprised when they see different cultures from different people around the globe, but there is very little culture shock anymore. We all read stories, see interviews and videos on how others act and what their cultures are all about so that has been nearly completely removed from us as a society to have that great feeling of the unknown when encountering such a situation. This was not the case in 1845. Information on different cultures was scarce and the Native Americans had to deal with a lack of knowledge as well as a great prejudice against them based on their cultural differences. It would be ignorant of me to say that no form of racism still exists in our world today but the wealth of information out there has definitely tempered things quite a bit.
This is something that is both hard to relate to and fascinating to watch/think about. Seeing how people react in a situation of complete uncertainty if one of the fascinating things about movies. In a fictional world we are allowed to look into these situations and suppose how we would react as humans. Some would react with reason and intellect, some would react on fear, others would react by letting others do the reacting for them and being too scared to make up their own mind so they just ‘follow the leader.’ We see all shades of this with the group in Meek’s Cutoff is confronted with a captured Native American and what they are going to do with him.
The group tries to get this Native American to lead them to water so they can sustain their journey long enough to reach their ultimate destination of Oregon. This part of their journey is filled with fear, paranoia, and uncertainty as they trust the man that they can’t even communicate with. It is a frightening prospect to be in a land you are not familiar with, in an attempt to find a place you’ve never been to before and having to trust a person you don’t know from a culture you don’t understand. This is the fascinating part of the film as they all have different ideas of how they should handle their tumultuous relationship with their newfound guide.
Ultimately, the movie leaves a little to be desired. As I mentioned earlier this movie is not necessarily concerned with proper story structure and beginning-middle-end type of certainties, but would rather study the characters and how the events of the journey affect them all individually and from a group perspective. The film strives to portray and realistic vision of life in this time and how people of this era spoke and interacted with each other in this type of a setting. This is all done well enough in the film but enough of a story arc is there to leave us angry with the level of resolution that is provided to us in the end. Open ended storylines are fine, not everything has to be wrapped up in a neat and tidy little bow, but there is a certain amount of closure that is necessary given any storyline and that is not reached by the filmmakers in this instance.
‘Meek’s Cutoff’ is a display of solid filmmaking and above average acting, but falls short in giving the audience any satisfaction from joining in on the journey this crew is taking. In the end, that is where the movie slightly unraveled for me and where it could have been better. The movie is worth your time if you are interested in the era or deliberate filmmaking, if not, you won’t miss anything by not seeing this film.