Review of Meek's Cutoff

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Michelle Williams and Shirley Henderson star in this 2010 Western film, which follows settlers as they travel through the Oregon desert in 1845 only to find themselves stranded in harsh conditions.

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Movie Review: "Meek's Cutoff"

-- Rating: PG
Length: 104 minutes
Release Date: April 8, 2011
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Genre; Western, Drama

In 1845, a group of settlers decided they wanted a new life. They packed up their belongings and entrusted their trip and their lives to Stephen Meek, a smooth-talking scout who guaranteed he could safely get them over the Oregon Trail. So sure was he in his abilities, he even offered to take them via a shortcut through the Cascade Mountains. He promised that in two weeks, the settlers would be out west and ready to start their new lives.

Two weeks has now spanned into five, and the settlers are still wandering through the desert. This is where Kelly Reichardt's ("Wendy and Lucy") epic Western drama, "Meek's Cutoff," begins. The three families, Solomon and Emily Tetherow (played by Will Patton and Michelle Williams); Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan); and William, Glory and Tommy White (Neal Huff, Shirley Henderson and Tommy Nelson) are running low on food, water and patience. It has become obvious that the guide does not know where he is going, no matter how much he downplays the situation. Unfortunately, they realize that without him, they are no better off. But when the group encounters a wandering Indian (Rod Rondeaux), some in the group realize that he might be their best chance of survival.

The movie is loosely based on actual accounts of settlers who crossed the Oregon Trail, some of whom did so with the help of Stephen Meek. Like the real-life settlers, the Tetherows, Gatelys and Whites made much of the journey on foot. There is a lot of walking in this movie. There is a lot of talking as well, though most of the conversations are just as meandering and lost as the settlers seem to be. The only character whose words seem to always have a point are Emily's, and this makes her the central character of the film and the one moviegoers want to see survive most of all.

This is a slow movie. Unlike the Westerns most Americans are used to, there are no wagons flying across the plains, nor are there any real fight scenes or gun battles. The movie is keenly focused on the journey, and at times, it feels like the movie is taking place in real time. For some, this might be boring, while for others it adds an immersion quality to the film. You feel as though you are a part of the wagon train, and you want the trip to come to a quick and successful conclusion.

The script was written by Jon Raymond during the Iraq War, and there are elements of xenophobia, particularly after the settlers capture the Indian, that are meant to be partially allegorical. But the movie manages to make the point regarding slavery and the issues involved in encountering other cultures without becoming preachy. Viewers understand that the male settlers' treatment of the Indian is wrong, and they also understand why Emily finally demands that instead of mistreating him, they should tap into his knowledge and let him lead them to the other side. Although everyone thinks this could just lead them all into a trap, the party also realizes that Meek could have less than honorable intentions himself. Considering a two-week journey has already spanned into five and their supplies are practically depleted, they realize they don't have much choice. Meek is furious, but knowing he is on very thin ice, chooses to go along with the new plan.

The casts' performances are stellar, even if they are relatively subdued. The exception to this is Williams' Emily, who is incredibly outspoken considering the period in which the movie takes place. Williams does an excellent job of supporting her husband, but she speaks out when it is necessary. Greenwood's portrayal of the title character makes the viewer question his motivations. It is unclear whether he's crazy, evil or really thinks he knows the way out, even when it becomes dangerously obvious that he does not.

"Meek's Cutoff" is a movie about several journeys with the Oregon Trail as the backdrop. It's not just about getting from one side of the Cascade Mountains to the other; it is also about the journey people take to find the courage to seek a new life and to survive while doing so. Those journeys take time, and Reichardt does an excellent job in setting the pace and staying true to the themes of the movie. If you enjoy a movie with excellent and extensive character development, this movie is one not to miss.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars