Susan Granger’s review of “Meek’s Cutoff” (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Kelly Reichardt’s experimental/avante garde cinematic concept must be an acquired taste, one that I haven’t yet cultivated. I found both “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy” unnecessarily tedious and this latest effort continues the spare subtlety with a slow deliberation that verges on downright boring.
A hand-embroidered title card announces this story is set in the Pacific Northwest in pre-Civil War 1845, as it follows three families headed west as part of an ox-drawn covered wagon caravan. They chose to leave a larger group on the Oregon Trail to follow grizzled mountain man Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) who brags that he knows a shortcut through the high plains desert. Their destination is the legendary Willamette Valley, but to get there, they must pass through the Cascade Mountains. Problem is: they’re lost.
As their food and water supplies dwindle, wary Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) and her older husband Soloman (Will Patton) lose confidence in Meek, particularly when a captured Cayuse Native American (Ron Rondeaux) offers an alternative. But where will Thomas Gately (Paul Dano) and his frightened wife Millie (Zoe Kazan), along with pregnant Glory White (Shirley Henderson), her husband William (Neal Huff) and their son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson), choose to place their faith? It’s a difficult decision – and their survival is at stake.
Working with her frequent collaborator, screenwriter Jonathan Raymond (HBO’s mini-series “Mildred Pierce”), Reichardt is an artistic minimalist as director/editor, particularly when it comes to depicting harsh realism – and defining whether the enigmatic Indian is a savage or a savior.
Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt underscores how stark, vast and foreboding the wind-blasted wilderness is – along with how hard the trudging pioneers, particularly the weary, bonneted women, worked simply to stay alive. Wobbly wagon wheels squeak, metal pans rattle and the mundane monotony is palpable. Then there’s that incongruous yellow parakeet confined in its cage.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Meek’s Cutoff” is an exhausting, ambiguous 6, recommended only for those who are seriously into a quiet, arduous chronicle of bleak hardship, seemingly portrayed in real time.