June 30, 2014

Meek's Cutoff

Kelly Reichardt, 2010
Set in 1845, a group travels across the Oregon country under the guidance of a man named Stephen Meek. Meek promises to guide them through what he believes is a shortcut over the Cascade Mountains. Their doubts grow as they continue to travel in what seems like endless country with food and water running low. When they encounter a Native American in their journey, they are torn between the guidance of Meek and the guidance of the man widely thought to be threatening to settlers.

Reichardt's Oregon Trail-based period piece focuses on the survival of a group across a very desolate landscape. Scattered clusters of dry grass across the cracked earth. The intermittent sight of copper boulders that provide a small sliver of hope that there may be something bounteous on the other side, only to soon find that it's just one of many disappointments across the steppes. Very unforgiving. While the group moves across the harsh terrain, there is a common theme at work: uncertainty. Uncertainty is a dominant motif at work here. They don't know if they can necessarily count on Meek to bring them to their destination. They are certainly losing faith in him. They aren't sure how close they are to finding water, food. In fact, they don't even know if they will drink any water tomorrow. Because of this, they aren't even certain of how long they will be able to maintain the same company. They aren't certain that the cattle or the wagons will persevere. The wooden barrels roped to the sides of the wagons are running dry like their morale. They don't know if their recent "companion" to join the group is going to be helpful, or dangerous. As the wheels turn on the rickety wagon, the wheels turn in their minds. They tread on, continuing forward. Because they have no other choice. The uneventful days turn to black nights, consisting of Emily scraping together some supplies for some minimal calories.

Unfortunately the story maintains synchronicity in terms of the crawling pace that the group upholds. Devoid of any real bursts, you are left in the company of a fairly two-dimensional group of people who don't ever really pull you in and keep you fully concerned. To their credit, their struggles feel realistic and their fortitude is inspiring. But like them, your thirst builds to the point of pure exhaustion. It's betraying when the score builds in the background, only to have that particular moment deflate and transition to a long shot of the two wagons continuing slowly across the empty plain. It's a bold piece of work for Reichardt in terms of a filmmaker attempting to make something with very little. Sadly that it's just not enough.

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