A blog about movies and filmmaking.

A Journey Into The West | MEEK’S CUTOFF

In drama, western on April 26, 2011 at 1:42 am

It’s only April and already 2011 has had two mighty fine Westerns. The first one was a little more fun and outrageous, and starred a chameleon. (That’d be RANGO, for those not paying attention.) The latest one, is much heavier, on a smaller scale, and is more of an experience into the old west itself. 

MEEK’S CUTOFF starts with a group of homesteaders crossing a river. They make camp, do dishes, wash laundry, collect water, and the first bit of dialogue we hear, is a boy reading from the bible. It’s the 1840’s and this is but one small path on the greater Oregon Trail. This group of three couples and their guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood – STAR TREK), have ventured away from the greater wagon-train making the treacherous journey. Their trust in the man with the grizzled beard and loud personality. Unfortunately, they’re starting to think he’s gotten them lost.

There’s talk of hanging, desertion, lack of water, and even a little philosophizing on the ideals of what men and women are made of. But what this movie always is, is a journey. There’s nothing flashy. There’s no indian attacks and narrow escapes. Or wild animals or escaped cattle. None of the conventional set-pieces that modern westerns seem to need. Just a group of people trying to survive. And as much as I liked the movie and the atmosphere it creates – the tension that builds from certain moments, or the anticipation of something about to happen  – it always maintains it’s even-keel. Amazingly, in this way, it makes comparing the movie to anything else difficult. I want to say it’s like THE ROAD, or THE PROPOSITION, or even Gus Van Sant’s GERRY; but all of those movies have at least one set-piece that lifts it into a different realm than Meek’s. And that’s not a complaint, though I have one of those.

I came out of the movie thinking that it was missing a third act and even after talking it out with a friend – on the subject of what it’s ending means – I still find the final part of the movie lacking. Not that I need big set-pieces, or blood-shed or anything. But, something that gives an idea of what we’ve just spent two hours watching. Hell, even a final piece of text that said “hundred’s of people lost their lives on this journey”…Instead, well, I found it beyond infuriatingly ambiguous.

The movie’s performances are all top-notch and very muted. Greenwood’s Meek is the showiest of the roles. With his grizzled beard, scratchy voice, and an outfit that looks like a Wild Bill reject; he’s got the look of a man lost in who he wants to be. Putting on airs is nothing new in the western genre. Men talking bigger than they should, or pretending to be something they aren’t, and that’s Meek. He’s the embodiment of old-west incompetence and not the slightest bit ashamed of it.

The rest of the cast is headlined by Michelle Williams (BLUE VALENTINE) who plays Emily Tetherow; a strong, but quiet woman married to the widowered Soloman (Will Patton – ARMAGEDDON). They both look after the others – mainly sticking with their own gender. She in her pink dress and bonnet; him, handed the reins in the absence of their guide’s abilities. It’s Emily that winds up giving the group their best chance at survival, when she comes face-to-face with a native who had been following them. The Indian (played by Rod Rondeaux) doesn’t conveniently speak English – nor any of the characters speak his language – so any communication that happens between them is never confirmed that the other understands. With his wall-scribbling, and “strange ways”, he remains just slightly more unknowable than the rest of the cast.

The other couples are played by Paul Dano (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) and Zoe Kazan (THE EXPLODING GIRL), as the Gately’s. She becomes the most frightened about having a native around, after spending most of the movie in silence, and he shows more interest in things lying on the ground. The last family are the White’s, played by Neal Huff, Shirley Henderson (Moaning Myrtle from the HARRY POTTER movies) sporting a pregnant belly, and their son, played by Tommy Nelson.

These are all the people we see in the movie. We never find some run-down town with a saloon, or see a train, or even pass-by other’s who’ve decided to turn back. These people are alone. Forced to deal with the hurdles that nature puts in front of them, as well as each other. Even the couples, themselves, seem separated by insurmountable distances. There’s no show of love or really, any emotion, from any of them – well, Meek shows a lot of disliking toward the Indian…But that’s about it.

The movie is not glamorous in the least, and seems fairly authentic in just what this trip must have been like. The barren landscape and people displayed before us, framed by director Kelly Reichardt’s striking visuals – and the inspired choice in aspect ratio – make MEEK’S CUTOFF worth seeing.

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