October 21, 2011 -- Once when I was driving around in southern Oregon, I took a shortcut to Oregon Caves and ended up in the Siskiyou Mountains on a dirt track suitable only for four-wheel drive vehicles. I had to turn around, go back, and find another way, losing many hours and miles in the process. Ever since that day, long ago, my wife has been very uncomfortable every time I plan to take a so-called shortcut anywhere. This movie, “Meek's Cutoff,” is a story about a few families in a wagon train that decide to split off and take a shortcut across the desolate wastes of eastern Oregon in the 1845. They became lost in a time and place where mistakes can be very costly.
I was born and raised in Oregon, so I know how harsh that land in eastern Oregon can be. It is so different from the lush, fruitful landscape of western Oregon where my grandparents homesteaded not so many years after the time this film was set. A small group of settlers hire Steven Meek to guide them over a shortcut in the Cascade Mountains to the Willamette Valley. The group becomes lost. There is a conspiracy theory that Meek (played by an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood of “National Treasure: Book of Secrets”) is purposefully leading them astray as part of a wider effort to prevent the Oregon Territory from becoming part of America. Dumb, right? But that's a conspiracy theory for you.
Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton of “Brooklyn's Finest”), a leader of the emigrants, has his doubts about Meek. When they capture a native Cayuse who has been following them, they decide to try to get him to lead them to water. The tough-looking Cayuse leads them, but where? He is inscrutable and they don't understand his Nez Perce language and he doesn't understand theirs. He has reasons not to help the emigrants. Their kind has stolen his people's land, killed his people and the emigrants haven't treated him all that well, either. The emigrants don't trust the Indian, but they don't trust Meek either. They are left to wander with their water running low, hoping somebody, anybody can help them find water in a dry land.
Meek wants to kill the Cayuse (played by native Crow Rod Rondeaux of “3:10 to Yuma”) and admits he has killed Indians for sport. Meek is a braggart and a blowhard who doesn't inspire confidence. Other emigrants, including Thomas Gately (Paul Dano of “There Will Be Blood”) don't trust the Cayuse and feel he is leading them into an ambush. Others trust the Indian more than they trust Meek. At one point there is a standoff, with pistols and rifles drawn, to determine the fate of the Cayuse.
There are a lot of similarities between this film, directed by Kelly Reichardt, and her previous film, “Wendy and Lucy.” Both are quiet films with minimal dialog. This film starts out with no dialog for several minutes and not much sound of any kind. This film is dominated by the vast landscapes which dwarf the settlers and their small wagons. The film clearly conveys a sense of danger and the arduous nature of the journey. It also clearly shows how unforgiving this land is. I have problems, but they are nothing compared to the problems these people face. These people could be dying, and it might be a slow, painful, agonizing death at that.
In modern travel, help is just a phone call away. Here, the emigrants are on their own. If you have seen “Wendy and Lucy,” then you know what you are in for, a very slow-moving film in which not much happens. If you liked “Wendy and Lucy” you will probably like this, too. If you didn't, and I did not, then you probably won't like this one, either. You might feel like you are trapped on a slow-moving wagon train to nowhere.
Some people hold the view that art films must be non-entertaining by their very nature. I am not one of those people. I think art films can and should entertain as well as enlighten. The acting is good here, particularly by Michelle Williams, who plays Emily Tetherow, Solomon's wife. Williams and Patton also both appeared in “Wendy and Lucy.” The scenery, shot in eastern Oregon, is rugged and interesting. This isn't really an entertaining film, but it definitely does give you a good idea of how tough and dangerous it was to be in a wagon train headed through a harsh land. This film rates a C.
Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.