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Countdown to Top Ten 2K11: “Meek’s Cutoff”

Countdown to Top Ten 2K11: “Meek’s Cutoff” (photo)

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Countdown to Top Ten 2K11 is a column with one simple goal: to help you decide what films you need to see before making your end of the year top ten list. Each installment features my thoughts on a critically acclaimed 2011 movie, a sampling of other critics’ reactions, the odds of the film making my own list, and the reasons why it might make yours.

This time we’re covering “Meek’s Cutoff,” one of the most divisive arthouse indies of the year. Is it a brilliantly original take on a classic genre or a steaming plate of “cultural vegetables?” Let’s find out.

Movie: “Meek’s Cutoff”
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 85%
Plot Synopsis: Three families and their hapless guide lost on the Oregon Trail in 1845 struggle to survive as their water supplies dwindle lower and lower.
What the Critics Said: “Bracingly original,” A.O. Scott, The New York Times
“Cinematic as it is, ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ has an uncanny theatricality,” J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
“A grippingly original work, with gorgeous cinematography,” Dana Stevens, Slate

Were They Right? I’m with Scott and Stevens: this is an undeniably original take on a very old genre (Stevens is dead-on about the cinematography as well; stunningly beautiful even in the old-fashioned 1.33:1 pan-and-scan aspect ratio). This is not the Old West of other movies. There’s no awe-inspiring cattle drive, no hard-charging cavalry riding to the rescue. Forget all the posturing from Ford and Hawks movies about taming the savage landscape, clearing the way for civilization, and proving your manhood. Those are all frivolities; Reichardt’s West is too unforgiving for that. Meek’s brigade faces much more basic problems, like figuring out where the hell they are and finding water before they all die of thirst.

The earliest scenes are both the wettest and the driest. Three wagons slowly cross a river. Then they clean their dishes in the gurgling water. After resting, they press on, in a journey to who knows where. There’s no exposition and less action. The characters’ faces are hard to see and their words are hard to hear; I actually had to plug in my headphones to hear the dialogue because the audio on the DVD was so faint through my computer’s speakers without them. This is surely the portion of the film that inspired Dan Kois’ controversial “Eating Your Cultural Vegetables” piece in The New York Times, and led him to describe the movie as “closed off and stubborn as the devout settlers who populate it.” This sequence certainly is.

If you stick with the film, though, the prologue’s importance becomes clearer. The river crossing looked uneventful, but it was also the last time any of the characters saw water. The wagons, led by a big-talking, big-bearded huckster named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), have gotten themselves lost. If they don’t find their way back to a river soon, they’ll be in serious trouble. Meek, who’s supposed to be in charge, doesn’t seem all that reliable.

As one character notes, Meek could be “ignorant” or “just plain evil.” It’s hard to say, which suggests he may intended as an allegorical stand-in for George W. Bush, another overconfident cowboy who led some naive and foolishly trusting people into uncharted territory with similarly disastrous results. And Greenwood is terrific in the role, though he may not receive the Oscar nomination he deserves for no other reason than he’s so completely unrecognizable behind a wall of facial hair and a frontier accent that voters may not recognize him. They’ll surely recognize Michelle Williams, also good as the strongest and most independent of the three wives on the wagon train. Reichardt’s focus on the women’s perspective of this doomed expedition and her curiosity about their daily lives of chores and toil is another way in which the film diverges from traditional Western narratives.

That’s supposing that “Meek’s Cutoff” has a narrative, Western or otherwise, at all. At times, it feels like it doesn’t. The only break in the monotony of the trudge through the Oregon scrub is the addition of a captured Native American (Rod Rondeaux) to the brigade. As the water supply dwindles and civility amongst the emigrants breaks down, identifying the native’s mysterious motives becomes yet another source of tension. In a quiet way, this is a devastating ticking clock movie. Every time the settlers stop for a drink or bicker amongst themselves about whether to follow the native or Meek they’re one step closer to death. By the end of the film, the desperation in their faces and their voices is absolutely haunting.

That said, even though I disagree strongly that watching this movie is an unpleasant experience akin to eating your vegetables, “Meek’s Cutoff” isn’t quite as successful as Reichardt’s last two efforts, “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy.” I was particularly unsatisfied by her choice of endings — although, according to this Village Voice interview with the director, it wasn’t a choice at all, but rather an economic necessity of a budget that ran out before shooting was completed. I don’t know what Reichardt’s original ending was, but I’m sure it would have been better than the one that was forced upon her, in which one person in the group says and does something completely out of character, and another performs an action that is open to a variety of equally unrewarding interpretations. The conclusion’s ambiguity leaves you with the feeling that going on this journey with these characters was a huge mistake. Admittedly, that may have been Reichardt’s point.

Could Get Oscar Nominated For: Best Supporting Actor (Bruce Greenwood)
Chances of Making My Top Ten: Slightly better than the emigrants’ chances of finding water with Meek.
It Might Make Your Top Ten List If: you dig revisionist Westerns; you’re a big fan of Reichardt’s previous films; you miss playing “Oregon Trail” on your Apple II.

“Meek’s Cutoff” is now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and iTunes; you can also rent it on Netflix. If you see it, tell us what you think; leave us a comment below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

Previously in Countdown to Top Ten 2K11
“Margin Call,” directed by J.C. Chandor
“Bill Cunningham New York,” directed by Richard Press
“Hanna,” directed by Joe Wright

IFC_Portlandia-S8_best-of-skits_subaru-blog

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

Uncle-Buck

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…