See This: Meek's Cutoff

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on May 11, 2011 6:20PM

2011_5_11meeks_cutoff.jpg This is a bracing movie that gets under your skin. For maximum impact, you shouldn’t read anything about Meek’s Cutoff before you watch it. But this wouldn’t be much of a post if it was only one sentence long, so a few words:

The year is 1845 and the place is Oregon, specifically the desert wilderness of western Oregon. A group of three wagons has broken off the main stem of the Oregon Trail. There have been rumors circulating that a band of Indians is lurking ahead, waiting to ambush them, so these settlers have decided to take their chances by relying on Stephen Meek (played by Bruce Greenwood) to show them the way. He's a wild and woolly guide with a beard so scraggly he could be mistaken for a vagrant, but the settlers have entrusted their lives to him. He says that the land to the west is a paradise and claims he can take them there.

Then they begin to run low on water. Suspicion grows day by day. How do they know they can trust Meek anyhow? Might he be leading them astray on purpose? And what about the Indian they capture--will he lead them to water or merely to slaughter at the hands of his tribe? Because they don't have a common tongue there's no way to know.

In other words, Paranoia on the Range. And if there's anything the last fifty years have shown us, it's that paranoia isn't limited to any particular era. In Meek's Cutoff this emotion helps us relate to a world that in most other respects feels completely alien: an existence where the most sophisticated piece of technology is a hand-cranked coffee grinder, and you repair your vehicle’s chassis by chopping a log to the proper dimensions.

Although there’s plenty of starkly beautiful scenery on display, humanity is always at the center of Meek's Cutoff. (Indeed, the film was not shot in widescreen but in the old squarish Academy ratio). The settlers are brought to life by a sterling ensemble cast including Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, and Will Patton.

With this followup to Wendy and Lucy, filmmaker Kelly Reichardt confirms her status as the finest American independent filmmaker working today. She and screenwriter Jon Raymond (who also adapted Mildred Pierce) take a hackneyed genre and strip away all the clich├ęs. There are no gunfights, no saloons, no cowboys, and no whorehouses in this Western. Just ordinary folks trying to make a new life for themselves, at the mercy of an indifferent environment and their own doubts.

Meek's Cutoff opens Friday at the Music Box