Monday, May 23, 2011

Meek's Cutoff

MEEK'S CUTOFF has a way of keeping you at a distance. I thought at first that I wasn't going to like this movie. It seems nothing more than a series of shots of a wagon party wandering a desolate strip of the American landscape. There is no dialogue for the first several minutes of the film. This is something I usually applaud if it's handled well and the visual storytelling is compelling enough to hold my interest. Here, however, the pacing was so slow, the plot so difficult to extract (the only clue we are given is when one of the settlers etches the word "lost" into a fallen tree), and the dialogue so sparse that I was beginning to prepare myself for ninety minutes of art-house frustration.

But something happened along the way. The scraps of dialogue we are given--many of which are from a faraway vantage and difficult to hear--begin to take the shape of a story. Meek, the guide, is a pompous buffoon who has gotten the party lost. Their water supply is dwindling and the hope of finding water diminishes with each passing day. Complicating matters are sightings of a Native American who, according to Meek, is a member of a savage and bloodthirsty tribe.

Before you realize it, a story has taken shape and a compelling one at that. Meek takes a Native American prisoner and much of the dramatic tension comes from opposing viewpoints on what to do with him. Meek says he cannot be trusted and must be killed right away. Some in the party feel that he can be used to lead the party to water. The clashing over the prisoner becomes the bulk of the story. Emily Tetherow, played by Michelle Williams, is the least afraid of the Native American and, to Meek's frustration, treats him humanely. She brings him water and food and mends his broken moccasin.

The tension among the party seems that it will come to a violent end, but MEEK'S CUTOFF plays against many of the traditional Western tropes. The ending is ambiguous, the journey is slow, the landscape is arid to the point that I found myself wishing for a glass of water. This is a film that rewards the patient. So see it. And be patient.

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