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Meek’s Cutoff

[Rating: 2.5/5]

Kelly Reichardt has a special place in my heart because she’s the only director who has put my tiny hometown on the big screen.  I have a hard time really liking her films, though, because they hardly register as films to me.  Her last one, “Wendy and Lucy” did manage, but just barely; “Meek’s Cutoff” falls below some invisible line.  Though set at least a hundred years apart, they are similar tonally.  “Wendy,” set in modern times, was about a young woman trying to get from Indiana to Alaska with very limited funds and absolutely no support system.  “Meek’s Cutoff” is about a group of immigrants on the Oregon Trail with very limited resources and absolutely no support system.

The immigrants are lost, because they have followed a guide (the titular Meek, played behind an enormous beard by Bruce Greenwood) who has no idea where he is, but is too caught up in cowboy bravado to admit it.  Once they’ve lost their faith in him, they capture a Native American, and trust him to lead them to water.  And that’s where the film ends.

“Meek’s Cutoff” is about making life or death choices when you have no good options; it’s about trying to make wise and shrewd decisions with no evidence or support for them.  But is that enough of a situation to make a movie?  Perhaps if you really dig deep into the characters making the decisions, but Reichardt seems determined to keep her distance from everybody and everything. Nobody talks much; nobody does much.  Characters are hidden behind large bonnets, big beards, cowboy hats, and interminable silence.  There are lots of wide-angle shots, and more than a handful of mid-range shots.  The scenes that do feature dialogue tend to happen in the dark, and are barely lit by campfire or lamplight.

Clocking in at 104 minutes, it’s really a pretty short film, but feels too long.  For all its bleakness and opacity, it probably could just as well established its situation and mood in twenty minutes or less.  And if it had been longer, perhaps there would’ve been time for something to happen without feeling rushed– even by Reichardt’s strenuously slow standards.  I don’t often argue for happy endings, frankly, if it had been ten minutes longer and ended with the wagon train coming over a ridge and seeing some small sign of hope, it would’ve been a much more satisfying film.  Instead, we spend an awful lot of time lost in the desert with inscrutable characters, and then are left sitting in the dark while the credits roll.  Identifying with characters is one thing; being made to suffer like them is a little too much.

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