RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: MEEK’S CUTOFF (2010)

DIRECTED BY:  Kelly Reichardt

FEATURING:  Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, , Shirley Henderson

PLOT: A small group of settlers faces an indefinite fate when they gamble their survival on the veracity of two diametrically opposed guides, each of questionable character.

Still from Meeks Cuttoff (2010)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: On its face, Meek’s Cutoff appears to be a steady, plodding historical-fiction drama, a slow, tense tale about the perils of trust and the tedium of uncertainty. And it is…to an extent. But there’s something going on under the surface. When the film refuses to relinquish it’s heavy, solemn tone by employing a musical score or comic relief as the unrelentingly grim and heavy nature of the characters’ conundrum intensifies and hangs on our conscience like dead weight, and as the subtly surreal nature of the setting and the situation sinks in, the weirdness mounts. The effect combines the absurdist, futile tedium of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, the eerie sense of a malignant grand design of Yellowbrickroad (2010), and the pensive, serenely surreal atmosphere of Housekeeping (1987). The result is unique and unsettling.

The sudden, quietly shocking ending and the location in the story in which it occurs appalls the viewer with a sickening insight. This epiphany reveals that the movie is not about the drama which has been unfolding up to this point, or about how it is to be resolved, but that it concerns something entirely different. Upon grasping the filmmakers’ message, we realize we have had a genuinely weird viewing experience.

COMMENTS: From the first frame, it’s obvious that Meek’s Cutoff is a serious, authentic, carefully crafted story. As is the case with so many independent art films, a majority of viewers may reject it. Audiences who are pining for a reprise of Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider should skip Meek’s Cutoff and instead opt for something like True Grit. They will find Meek’s Cutoff  boring, and it’s climax confusing, unsatisfying and disturbing.

Viewers who enjoy artfully cerebral movies with ambiguous conclusions however, will like Meek’s Cutoff. The clever ending dramatically drives home the thrust of the film, revealing it to be much more than just a Western genre pic.

In Meek’s Cutoff, three families split away from a larger wagon train to follow a shady rogue scout named Stephen Meek. Meek promises them a quicker, safer route over the Cascades to Western Oregon. Once past the point of no return, Meek reveals himself to be unorthodox, incompetent, and possibly insane.

Vain, full of colorful, sophomoric bravado, nursing a penchant for savage violence, Meek gets the settlers completely and utterly lost on an endless, wasted plain. Desperate, running out of water, and coping with numerous potentially life threatening hardships, the pioneers form an uneasy alliance with a captured Cayuse brave.

Offering rewards, the settlers clamor to entice the warrior to lead them to water, squaring off with an inflamed Meek in the process. Meek tries to kill the Indian, claiming the Indian nearly precipitated a massacre when attempting to report the settlers’ presence to his tribe. The settlers suspect Meek is crazy. Has he been contracted by the Hudson Bay Company to deliberately maroon them in favor of French emigrants? Has the Cayuse tribesman been signaling to trailing warriors bent on overtaking the small wagon train? The homesteaders are split as to whom they can trust.

The three families find themselves at the mercy of two antagonists locked in mutual animosity. Will one man save them, or will both men damn them?

Eastern Oregon’s stark, high desert scrub wastes accent striking cinematography in this quietly tense, plodding, surreal story about faith versus uncertainty. Jeff Grace’s haunting, dreamlike score, combined with the alien setting, gives Meek’s Cutoff the feeling of an odyssey. Rather than shot, the picture seems almost engraved into the blanched, weathered rock and parched loam of the blasted landscape.

The desolate geography, at once romantic and forlorn, forms not only the backdrop for the action, but the backbone of the plot. It brandishes a chilling openness, contradicted by a claustrophobia achieved by the way its hills and dales obfuscate any possible sign of deliverance at the horizon. Recalcitrant, unforgiving, the desert is in collusion with the homesteaders’ nemeses, channeling the settlers to a vague and ambiguous fate. Trekking across an alien, vacuous landscape, the emigrants are like cosmic explorers; like spacewalkers attached to their capsules by an oxygen lifeline, the homesteaders are tethered to their Conestogas by the umbilical reins of their oxen. In this way, the harsh countryside is itself an antagonist, incipiently complicit with the story’s provocateurs.

Time seems to stand still during the families’ sojourn upon the featureless terrain. Progress is measured by reaching a horizon that only reveals yet another one beyond it. The significance of the settlers’ destination becomes subordinated to the minutiae of the routine actions and regimentation of the journey itself.

The minutiae are the journey, and the journey is the story. Repetitive tasks have a grounding effect, providing a measure of the day and a way to combat the disorientation of the wide open plain. Despite the expansiveness of the sky above, however, the travelers’ situation is often claustrophobic: dips, dales, and buttes obscure the view of their surroundings. It seems they are always looking up to the rim of a basin instead of out to the horizon. Long hooded bonnets and wagon covers become blinders.

Meek’s Cutoff can be reminiscent of Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. Time dilates. Resolution fails to manifest. What was predicted to be a two week journey stretches to five. Meek perpetually promises that water is just over the next hill, but it never is.

It’s the conflict between Meek and the Cayuse brave, the ambiguity of the guides’ intentions, and the severity of the situation that distinguishes Meek’s Cutoff from an excruciating absurdist play. We want to see who is telling the truth, who is mad, who is sane, what will come from the animosity between the guides. The serenity of the plain is an illusion. The threat of sudden slaughter and annihilation lurks just beyond the edges of sage covered hillocks.

Meek’s Cutoff is about much more than a quest for water and safe passage. This is where its categorization as a “Western” proves troublesome. The film is an odyssey about trust, doubt and fatalism, its story related through a seamless ribbon of vignettes. These segments emphasize the challenge, tedium and visceral rawness of the daily survival struggle made by desperate people with limited resources and modest technology in a hostile environment. The matches of wits and elements of fate provide Meek’s Cutoff with a unique depth.The point is driven home by a strategic, unconventional denouement. Upon beholding its sudden, heavy, ambiguous ending, we realize Meek’s Cutoff is really about the monotonous hell of perpetual mortal uncertainty.

APPENDIX:

Loosely inspired by, but not based on an actual incident, Meek’s Cutoff is set in the year that a wagon train met tragedy in the central Cascades in what today is known as Meek’s Cutoff. The real life Stephen Hall Meek was born in Virginia in 1807. An experienced mountain man, he hired himself out as a trail guide to settlers traveling the Oregon trail from Independence, Missouri.

In 1845, Meek led 200 wagons, between 750 and 1000 settlers, and thousands of heads of cattle and oxen across the high plains west of Vale, Oregon toward the eastern slopes of the Cascades. Hoping to establish a more direct middle route through the region, Meek attempted to find a shortcut to Oregon City, by following the course of the Malheur River south and then west.

When the pioneers failed to locate water en route, they abandoned their westerly course, turning north. Sending out multiple search parties in a 25 mile radius, the settlers eventually located water at Buck Creek and the South Fork of the Crooked River. By the time Meek’s wagon train arrived in The Dalles in the Willamet Valley, some distance from Oregon City, at least 23 of the pioneers were dead. Weakened from their ordeal, an unspecified number died shortly after their arrival at The Dalles. (Karen Bassett, Jim Renner, and Joyce White. Meek Cutoff, 1845, [Oregon Trails Coordinating Council 1998]; Keith Clark and Lowell Tiller. Terrible Trail: The Meek Cutoff, 1845, [Bend, OR: Maverick Publications Inc., 1966])

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a film ponderously slow in pace yet kinetically charged with insight; starkly realistic yet allegorical too; psychologically astute yet politically resonant.”–Rick Groen, Toronto Globe and Mail (contemporaneous)

Actors Will Patton, Michelle Williams, writer Jonathan Raymond, and director Kelly Reichardt may be familiar to some viewers from the 2008 independent drama Wendy And Lucy.

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