Spoiler alert. The ending of Meek's Cutoff is startling and has caused some debate among filmgoers. Following its world premiere in September 2010 at the Toronto International Film Festival, I witnessed almost half of the audience shaking their heads while just as many raved about the film's originality. My first reaction was surprise, which morphed into anger but then eased into admiration and ended with praise. Eight months later, I still can't get it out of my head.
There is nothing easy about Meek's Cutoff. The setting is the 1845 Oregon Trail--to be more accurate, it is off the trail. Just how far off is the mystery of Meek's Cutoff. A small wagon train makes its way west across Oregon's high desert and central Cascade Range. Anyone familiar with the landscape will instantly recognize the setting and credit the film's authenticity.
Three families hire a blustery mountain man turned trail blazer, Stephen Meek, to guide them through what they presume to be the final leg of a journey to the Pacific. But Meek loses his way, and one assumes that he never truly knew the way to begin with. Two weeks become five, and five weeks become eternity as all concept of time and motivation is gone with the wind.
Meek's Cutoff sets as slow a pace as you will see in any movie this year. Long scenes contain little to no dialogue. Words yield to a rhythmic but silent tension. Halfway through the film, I was sweating and breathing hard, with a dread of drowning in a sea of dust and despair. This is clearly not a Zane Grey wagon train with John Wayne tossing off one-liners. If anything, Meek's Cutoff is the anti-Western. In its genuineness, we are transported to a filthy, grueling, scorching reality.
Michelle Williams (Emily Tetherow) again proves why she is one of this generation's finest film actresses. Her familiar squint from beneath a weathered bonnet portends wisdom in a mostly silent character. With the sparest of dialogue, she becomes the moral compass of the doomed journey. Extra kudos to Rod Rondeaux in a perfectly nuanced portrayal of a nameless Native American, sworn enemy of the travelers, but who may be their only salvation. And Bruce Greenwood as Meek is full of spitfire. Somewhere under Meek's bush of a beard is one of Hollywood's most handsome leading men.
Williams' performance is crafted with complete trust from director Kelly Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond. The trio previously collaborated on Wendy and Lucy. Here, in addition to exploring Central Oregon's desert, the three explore themes of austerity, faith and trust. It's heady stuff.
Critics have heaped praise on the film but there has also been a healthy amount of derision from some who loathe the movie's pace and paucity. For me, the journey in Meek's Cutoff is arduous but unforgettable.