Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Meek's Cutoff (2010)

Meek's Cutoff (2010)
Meek's Cutoff (2010)

Genre: Drama
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano
Duration: 104 min.
Rating: 7.5  

The year is 1845, the earliest days of the Oregon Trail, and a wagon train of three families has hired mountain man Stephen Meek to guide them over the Cascade Mountains. Claiming to know a shortcut, Meek leads the group on an unmarked path across the high plain desert, only to become lost in the dry rock and sage.

Meek's Cutoff  is a film directed by Kelly Reichardt and written by Jonathan Raymond, who was also the writer of her previous two films.  It premiered at the 2010 Venice Film Festival, where it won the SIGNIS award.

Having heard quite a lot of good buzz from critics and fellow bloggers, I've been looking forward to seeing this film for some time.  Now after watching it, I can see where all the acclaim is coming from. There was much to like, but at the same time it is difficult to call this a great film.

Set in 1845 and based on a true historical event, the story, or rather the scenario, follows three young couples as they make their way across the Oregon desert, following Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), their guide who promised them a shortcut through the Cascades.  After a stitched title card is briefly shown, the film begins abruptly and immediately one notices the jarring 1.33:1 boxy aspect ratio.  Though I had read about it before, it was still strange because it's not something you expect to see from a modern picture.

Using no dialog or exposition we are thrust into the middle of the story, with only the images and sounds to figure out what is going on.  It's a slow but incredibly captivating way to introduce us to the characters and the land.  With long and very long distance shots from a static camera, you really get a sense of both the beauty and the unsettling vastness of the landscape.  The framing of every shot is excellent and emphasizes this feeling from every direction.  It isn't long before you realize that the chosen aspect ratio remarkably works to give both a closed and claustrophobic, as well as an open and endless point of view. 

Meek's Cutoff (2010)

There is some fine acting as well, Michelle Williams continues to impress, here the arc of her character Emily is the focal point of the film, and she handles the subtle role with a natural and self assured manner.  Bruce Greenwood was also perfect as Meek, all gruff and arrogant, and basically unrecognizable with his face hidden under a cowboy hat and behind his mountain man beard.  The rest of the cast supports them very nicely and most importantly they all look and feel like real people not actors.

I am a fan of minimalistic cinema and love when details are left up to the viewer to fill in, but in this film Reichardt takes this minimalism to a frustrating degree.  Sure it is filled with striking images, artistry, and authenticity, and it is refreshing to see a western from the perspective of a woman, but for me it lacked a connection with the characters.  We are kept at such a distance from them that it is difficult to really sympathize about their plight when the rare dramatic moments occur.  Also much of the sparse dialog is close to unintelligible, and I'm sure that was also a stylistic choice, but it makes the viewer wonder "What did they just say?" a few too many times. 

Meek's Cutoff is the perfect film if you enjoy accurate historical recreations, want to reflect on the arduous experience of those early pioneers, or just love staring out at the scenery.  But anyone looking for entertainment in the form of a story, emotional involvement, or action will be left like the characters, high and dry.  Perhaps it's all a grand statement about the nature of humans to wander off into the unknown, following lies from all the wrong leaders, but then who is the message intended for? 

Bonjour Tristesse

Meek's Cutoff (2010)

Meek's Cutoff (2010)

Meek's Cutoff (2010)

Meek's Cutoff (2010)

Meek's Cutoff (2010)

Meek's Cutoff (2010)

Meek's Cutoff (2010)

Meek's Cutoff (2010)


Bonjour Tristesse said...

I'm glad you agree.  Thanks for stopping by.

NeverTooEarlyMP said...

I felt bad about missing this one when it was at the local indie theater, but having read your review I feel a little better. And if I do ever catch it on DVD, I'll make sure to watch it with the closed captioning on.

Nostra said...

Saw it this past weekend as well and you describe my feeling about this perfectly. It is beautiful to watch and feel what the pioneers must have gone through. But as a movie it's hard to recommend to others as the is hardly any story.

Msmariah said...

I used to really enjoy playing the game the Oregon Trail in the 80s.  I'm just fascinated with this time period.

The Reel Foto said...

ooh, i had forgotten about this, thanks for reminding me. :)

moviesandsongs365 said...

Agree on the authenticity and beautiful camera work. I think I'd give it a 6 myself due to story.  The subjective viewpoint in Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy somehow worked better for me, than the collective struggle. The scenes in the dark I didn't quite see the point of, to show how it sometimes was in those days? Good review.

Bonjour Tristesse said...

I agree the final shot was very well done, and was the appropriate way to end this film.  I think maybe my expectations were too high, seeing the almost universal critical praise it got.

Hoi-Ming Ng said...

I kinda need to have a story of some kind.

Stevee said...

I would really like to see this movie, but unfortunately it's playing at some awkward times at the film festival. The aspect ratio that was chosen for this film sounds very interesting...it looks like it is beautifully shot. I really liked Reichardt's last feature Wendy and Lucy, too. Nice review!

Bonjour Tristesse said...

That's a good plan.  

Bonjour Tristesse said...

I loved that game too, back in elementary school.

Bonjour Tristesse said...

I haven't seen that yet.  It's high on my list now though, thanks for the comment.

Colin said...

Mmm, I share your ambivalence. Accurately-portrayed monotony is still monotony, after all. Still, Greenwood was a fun watch.

FrontRoomCinema said...

Are you trying to tell me that this is a better film than Cowboys and Aliens?

I am joking obviously.

Sounds good although the aspect puts me off a bit...LOL

Andrew Buckle said...

I'm really glad you got the chance to see it. I'm disappointed to hear that you didn't enjoy it as much as you expected, but you make some great points. That final shot is still lingering with me, and I really liked some of the striking photography and the really subtle power shift between the characters. It was a pleasant surprise, which is always nice when seeing a film at the cinema. Too often we are influenced by trailers, promotional material and reviews. I went in knowing virtually nothing. It contributed to my immense enjoyment for the film, and the intriguing nature of the events. Top work.

d_4 said...

I'm not sure how I feel about watching this one. In the trailer the acting really came through for me, but if it doesn't have more depth to it than you make it seem, it's probably not worth it for me. I also hate the "what did they just say" feeling. I mean, that doesn't make me incline towards seeing it either.

Jack L said...

I actually just got hold of this one a couple of days ago, and I've read quite a few good things about it, so I look forward to it. It does seem like a bit of a tough watch, but I'd be interested to see a film directed by a woman for a change.

Bonjour Tristesse said...

I haven't seen Cowboys and Aliens, so I'm not qualified to say... but as much as I was disappointed, I would much prefer watching something like this, over any sequence of CGI explosions. 

Bonjour Tristesse said...

at least now you won't pick it up expecting something else. 

Bonjour Tristesse said...

I don't think you'd find it a tough watch, Jack.  Especially for someone who is a fan of Malick and Tarkovsky. 

jswarner319 said...

I too am looking forward to seeing this. I felt like Wendy and Lucy was one of the best films of 2008. Have you seen that and did you like it? If this one is anywhere near as good as Wendy and Lucy, I'll be happy.

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