MOVIE: Meek’s Cutoff (2011)

Set in 1845, this visually stunning film is about three young couples who have hired a mountain man named Stephen Meek to guide them over the Cascades west into Oregon (Meek is played by a completely unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood, by the way — I didn’t even know it was him until the final credits rolled. THAT IS A BEARD, FOLKS, THAT RIGHT THERE. WOW, YES, SOME BEARD YOU HAVE THERE, SIR).

As the movie opens, the group has been on the move weeks longer than Meek had originally estimated, and are on the verge of running out of both food and water.  Tensions are high and only get higher when the group begins to suspect Meek’s “short-cut” off the trail has resulted in their becoming hopelessly lost in the dry plains.  When they spot a lone Native American on a horse, Meek and the unofficial (by way of being the calmest, it seems) leader of the group, Soloman Tetherow, take off after him, bringing him back to the group in the hopes he can lead them to water.

This goes about as well as you might suspect.  Half the group is terrified of him, the other half wants to hang Meek for getting them lost in the first place, and Meek himself wants to shoot the Indian before he signals his tribe and a massacre ensues.  (Or, more likely, before everybody realizes they are, in fact, better off with the Indian as their guide and go ahead and hang Meek after all.)

Only the Tetherows (Will Patton and the truly amazing Michelle Williams) seem able to keep their heads, even after a terrible accident destroys the rest of their water and most of their belongings to boot.

If that doesn’t sound like much of  story for a full-length film, that’s because the story here isn’t really the point.  It’s not a movie about “plot.”  This stark, gorgeous film instead aims to transport us into the world of wagon trains in the Old West.  What were they really like?  We’ve seen them here and there in other films, read about them in books, but never have I found myself so wholly engaged in the awful, long, plodding, hot, exhausting hardness of what they truly must have been like.  This film is so unflinchingly realistic there are entire scenes in which no one speaks at all (and why would they?  what is there to say?), and the insane brightness of the daytime sunshine contrasted with the pitch black of the night scenes conveyed like nothing else I’ve seen the sensation of really being out there in the middle of nowhere with nothing but what fit into your tiny wagon and the dream of something better somewhere over there in the distance.

Everyone looks just about worn through by the time we enter the story, tempers flare and fade, the youngest wife is losing her shit, and through it all, Meek is desperately trying to maintain an air of leadership and experience long since transferred by most of the rest of the group to the half-naked, completely alien (to them) Native American, despite the fact they can’t communicate and, for all they know, he’s leading them straight to their deaths.

The film ends as abruptly as it began — we drop into their journey and then we drop back out.  But in between, we get a powerful experience as viewers, transported right to the hot, dry west with them, their fears ours, and their dreams ours too.

Highly, HIGHLY recommended (and my god, is there ANYTHING Michelle Williams can’t do?).  Absolutely breathtaking visually — the colors of this film are so incredible I wish I’d seen it on the big screen or at least in HD — and extremely moving in its simplicity as well.  Brilliant.

[Netflix it | Buy it]

Genre: Drama
Cast: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Zoe Kazan, Tommy Nelson, Will Patton, Rod Rondeaux

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