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Meek's Cutoff

Michelle Williams in Meek's Cutoff
Wednesday May 18th, 2011

In Meek's Cutoff Director Kelly Reichardt does for America's westward migration mythology what Robert Aultman did for America's Old West celebrity mythology in Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Meek's Cutoff tells the true story of a wagon train that detours off the Oregon Trail in a futile effort to find an easier way around the mountains to Northwest Oregon. They think they're in good hands as their leader is Stephen Meek an experienced guide supposedly familiar with the territory. But Meek proves to be an incompetent blowhard and they find themselves wandering around in a desperate search to find water.

The real 1845 wagon train was significantly larger than depicted here but other than that the film is historically accurate. Reichardt's reputation as a minimalist filmmaker is reaffirmed here as the story unfolds deliberately with few distractions from the stark human drama.

This is a most atypical western. The men are indecisive and afraid to confront Meek over his abject failure to deliver on his claims. The only one who isn't afraid to express her frustration is Emily beautifully played by last year's Academy Award nominee for Blue Valentine Michelle Williams. Former stuntman Rod Rondeaux is good as a Native American who becomes a prisoner of the group. Chris Blauvelt's cinematography captures the growing feeling of hopelessness, isolation and dejection against a bleak landscape.

Besides telling a compelling story I also felt that Reichardt was delivering a cautionary tale about America's proclivity to follow leaders who mask their ignorance with bravado while avoiding wiser voices they're predisposed to mistrust because they belong to members of a different race or religion.