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

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”

Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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GIFS via Giphy

On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”

But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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Draught Pick

Sam Adams “Keeps It Brockmire”

All New Brockmire airs Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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From baseball to beer, Jim Brockmire calls ’em like he sees ’em.


It’s no wonder at all, then, that Sam Adams would reach out to Brockmire to be their shockingly-honest (and inevitably short-term) new spokesperson. Unscripted and unrestrained, he’ll talk straight about Sam—and we’ll take his word. Check out this new testimonial for proof:

See more Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC, presented by Samuel Adams. Good f***** beer.

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