Meek's Cutoff is a real-life trail in Oregon, originally followed by Stephen Meek in 1845. He led a group of pioneers down that route, losing many to dehydration, but eventually helped open up Western Oregon with his trail. In director Kelly Reichardt's (WENDY AND LUCY) movie the story is stripped down and pared back. Rather than hundreds of pioneers we have three families, and rather than epic confrontations with Native Americans we have a single dramatic relationship. Lost, desperate for water, the pioneers capture a lone Native American, and force him to lead them to water. This confrontation brings out the worst prejudices of Meek, and the paranoia of some of the women who have been brought up on vicious tales. But it also brings out the essential decency and courage of Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) - the moral and emotional heart of the tale. The ultimate idea of the movie is subversive. The trail is named after Stephen Meek, and the pioneers are much to be admired, but as the movie progresses the captive becomes captor. He is still bound up by the pioneers, but they are completely dependent on him to find water and to survive.
I find Kelly Reichardt's films alienating. I find the stillness, the quietude, disturbing and, ultimately, dull. I admire the beautiful cinematography and the acting - but it's a kind of abstract admiration. I suspect that audiences will either love this film - for its visuals and its central idea - or hate it - for its silence, and its oblique ending. I am glad I watched it, even if I didn't really enjoy it. I admire the project, if not the product.
MEEK'S CUTOFF played Venice and Toronto 2010. It does not yet have a commercial release date.
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