Meek’s Cutoff: not exactly a walk in the park

Meek’s Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt, is an austere and perfectly controlled account of the journey of a small group of settlers through the barely charted deserts and plains of Oregon in 1845. There are three families, each with a covered wagon and a few scant supplies, plus their grizzled guide, the Meek of the title (played by a magnificently beardy Bruce Greenwood), whose breezy confidence and endless fund of frontiersman’s tales provide less and less reassurance as it becomes increasingly clear that both the direction of the group’s destination, and more urgently, the location of a source of drinking water, are completely unknown to him. The travellers eventually end up pinning their hopes on a native American they capture, but it’s not at all clear if he’s willing, or indeed able, to help them.

There’s a whole lot of walking in this movie. We see the group trudging along under a blazing sun for about ten minutes before there’s any dialogue, and it takes a while to adjust to the deliberate pacing. We see them break when there’s some shade to be had, we see them prepare rudimentary meals and carefully ration their water, we see them light fires at night and retreat to their wagons and then the cycle repeats, with their clothes getting gradually dirtier and their faces more weatherbeaten. Meek aside, they all appear stoic, taciturn and God-fearing to begin with, but as their journey starts becoming more and more desperate their individual characters start to emerge, with Michelle Williams’ Emily showing the most initiative by explicitly confronting Meek and influencing her level-headed husband Soloman (Will Patton) to exert his rationality over the other travellers’ superstition and fear. The conflicts that occur are believable and arise naturally from the characters and the situation and there’s a refreshing lack of irrelevant subplots and manufactured incident.

Rather surprisingly, the film that this meticulously well-researched and staged historical piece reminds me of is the famously low-budget Blair Witch Project, which, incidentally, is I think the last modern American film I can remember before this one to be presented in the old Academy (ie non-widescreen) aspect ratio. Both films are about a small group getting lost in an unmapped and possibly hostile environment, with the people involved getting increasingly paranoid and fractious as hope is lost. The ending of Meek’s Cutoff is, however, somewhat more ambiguous than that of Blair Witch, and may leave you a bit let down, though this shouldn’t discourage you from seeing the film, which I found unexpectedly gripping despite its slowness.

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