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STUDIO: Oscilloscope Laboratories
RUNNING TIME: 104
• Making of Meek’s Cutoff
Settlers traveling through the Oregon desert in 1845 find themselves stranded in harsh conditions.
Director: Kelly Reichardt Actors: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano
Michelle Williams shines in this slow moving character driven depiction of challenges our early settlers endured.
Unless you turn down an alley and accidentally wind up in the middle of a bad section of town, we don’t normally experience that fright that used to happen when a wrong turn could be the difference between saving time and losing a life. In the current era, it takes ideas such as the plane crash that begins The Grey to strip us of the technology that ensures this can never happen to us, but in 1845 this was common.
Meek’s Cutoff begins with barely any talking and just sets the stage for the pace of travel and subsequently the pace of the film. We watch as the animals get water, dishes are cleaned and barrels are filled with water. Lots of water, in an otherwise waterless film, as when they leave this becomes the largest struggle for our group of settlers.
These travelers are adept at surviving in harsh conditions, as they have already traveled to the western side of the continent but they are about to be tested as humans can only survive 3 days without water. As the minutes in the movie methodically roll by the water is consumed, spilt and wasted to the point we know the water won’t last as long as the film. The travelers know this and even as the movie begins, they are already debating hanging their opinionated and all-knowing guide that has purposely led them to an area never before traveled. Bruce Greenwood camouflages himself into Stephen Meek, a gritty unshaven unapologetic guide that hates all Indians and has stories about each tribe and the horror they present to the white man. At one point, he almost begs to be available in the happenstance that violence were to occur, with a strong sense of pride and a charm to let you know he is doing it for the people and not himself.
Michelle Williams is opposite of Meek in every way. Her Emily Tethero character is a newlywed that has either not learned her place as a female in the mid 1800s, or more likely knows what she should do and bravely chooses to ignore what society tells her. She respects her husband, but only when she has his ear. She makes decisions about what the animals are required to pull and how the water should be divided and when. Most of all, she is not scared to use a gun or point it at another human. By definition, her character is at ends with every decision Meek makes and often sways her husband to see things from a different angle. He doesn’t always do what she wants but the influence is in his decisions. Her time is normally spent with the women but when she wants to speak to the men she does. For this reason, this film has often been described as being about both gender and subsequently race struggles. Her character is definitely ahead of her time and is a very strong protagonist.
The crux of the story and the basis of the racial struggles begin once a Native American Indian is entered into the group of settlers. Greenwood and Williams struggle to have their opinions of the Indian heard and to make certain of his future in or out of the group. The film presents the Indian in the raw format that he would have been viewed by the settlers. They are unable to understand him, and he walks ahead of or on the side of the settlers, mumbling and viewing things differently than they do. He speaks but they don’t understand him. This feels appropriate and continues to place the viewer in the wagon procession, feeling the time creeping by all the while trying to figure out who is right or wrong on the intentions of the Indian.
I was impressed with the attention to detail used to recreate the Oregon in 1845. The way nature looked back then, the construction of the wagons, the costumes and the small amounts of wildlife that we see. The biggest historical inaccuracy that I could find about the movie was that it was unlikely there would be such a small group of settlers in the convoy, and even though the decision was probably made for budget concerns, the others would not have changed the tone of the film. You could argue that they were supposed to have been on the main trail until convinced otherwise by Meek, and they may have split from a larger group to pursue his offer.
The director was born in Oregon, the movie was filmed in Oregon and the screenplay was written by an Oregonian so the film holds nostalgia to those living in Oregon. Director Kelly Reichardt does a nice job building the movie at a slow pace and letting the tension build without resorting to cheap tricks or Hollywood style ignorance. The lack of words at the beginning is reminiscent of the history films we watched when I was in school. Displaying actions and then having a slow voice over to tell you about how the times were hard and then allowing time for teachers to add their own commentary. It was an interesting choice and one I think that adds to the authenticity of Meek’s Cutoff. The characters are strong and there are some great supporting roles played by Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan and Will Patton. Overall, the movie belongs to Williams, whose performances seem to be able to carry weaker movies into something more than they could have been without her.
The downside to the film is it is slow. It may be interesting to see the characters walking the dry lands looking for water, but when that is what seems to be the main narrative for 10 of the first 45 minutes, this makes for a movie that attempts to lose your attention. The movie does eventually get very interesting and graciously returns the time investment to the viewer, but it was a struggle to keep interest in the beginning. After watching the entire movie, I feel that some of the time consuming shots to establish the time period could have been shortened to enable a friendlier viewing. Meek’s Cutoff is very strong when it gets going, and the acting is top notch, but getting to the end may be as hard for some as finding water was in 1845.
The box art for Meek’s Cutoff immediately stands out. It screamed for me to watch it first out of the four DVDs I received to review, and upon opening the case the lavish artwork enthralled fold after fold. Sketches of the main characters are on the cover and the multiple fold non-traditional cardboard Blu Ray case. Inside you find slits to hold both a Blu disc and a DVD disc instead of the customary raised center spoke. A sketched Michelle Williams holding a gun on the muted yellow cardboard graces the cover and presents itself in an elegant way.
The transfer maintains the director’s choice of a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. At first I thought something was screwed up in my settings, but I was shocked to find out this was done to enhance the viewer’s experience by presenting them with a box like image very similar to what the bonnets would have presented the female characters in this time frame. Even though I am not used to watching movies using a ratio normally reserved for SD television, I soon forgot about it. The sound was clean but some of the dialogue was muttered at a low level, making some lines hard to comprehend.
The colors seemed to be vivid and bright but the blacks were too black. I watch my movies on a 92 inch projector that doesn’t always have the color depth that a flat screen does, but even so, I had to completely black out all light to make out dark shadows of the characters during the many dark scenes. I have not had to do this with any other film, and especially with a 1080p resolution. I have to believe that this was the original film stock and if it was it could have been remastered to have a better effect on home video.
The extra features that were included were not even good enough to use as a selling point. The Making Of featurette is a random selection of production diaries presented with some music and a lot of captured sounds. Never does it explain what or who you are looking at and is a wasted opportunity to speak about the historical inspiration o the film and the choice made to maintain its integrity. They also include the original trailer. For such a nice packaging, the movie really deserved a lot more in the way of special features.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars