Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Meek's Cutoff

Stephen Meek was a nineteenth century fur trapper who led would be pioneers in covered wagons through the American West.  The emigrants sought a new land but had concerns about hostile Indians.  Meek played guide and took groups of settlers through eastern Oregon through some pretty steep and arid terrain.  In 2010's MEEK'S CUTOFF, loosely based on true events,  the guide is shown to be cocky yet somewhat confused about this route he was supposed to know so well.

The band of couples, with a few young 'uns in tow, become increasingly suspicious that Meek (Bruce Greenwood) doesn't really know his way.  Suspicion gives way to concern, then desperation, as food and water supplies run low.  As the two week trip stretches into many more, it becomes all about the water, the desert landscape only making this more palpable with each step. Will the lone Indian they eventually capture, whose language they cannot interpret, lead them to a spring, or more Indians waiting in ambush?

The storyline sounds potentially exciting, but MEEK'S CUTOFF is not your typical survivalist adventure.  Not a standard Western by any stretch.  You might say it's a cross between THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and a Terrence Malick film.  The stunning environment looms from the first image. Incredible detail is woven into even the briefest of scenes.  Night scenes are lit only with the dim lanterns someone in 1845 would've used.  Director Kelly Reichert has created sort of a poem to the human spirit.  To doggedness in the face of trial.  Of the so-called "weaker vessel" womenfolk who are relegated to the margins while their men discuss the next move.  The women who rise up.

Dialogue is not heard for nearly fifteen minutes after MEEK'S CUTOFF opens..  When it comes, it's often spoken very quietly. Sometimes it's Scripture.  Pay very close attention, the words may offer clues to be remembered when you reach the final scene, which will drive several viewers mad with its inconclusiveness.  Right after Meek surrenders and states, "We're all just playing our parts now.  This was written long before we got here."

MEEK'S CUTOFF is a slow but fascinating and engrossing drama that does engage with its story.  The actors, including Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, are effective and believable.  But what really makes the film worthwhile, worth the journey, is Reichert's meticulous direction.  Every shot is beautifully thought out.  Each scene a short story in itself.  A short story that trusts its readers to make their own connections. Is Meek a historic parallel to any twentieth or twenty-first century political figures? Blindly leading his countrymen, his flock? At other moments I thought of that play The Lower Room, where the women met while the disciples were with Jesus.

And all along, you are a witness to how it all probably was on the trail, never once romanticized or overly dramatized.  This is quite a unique motion picture.

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