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.