26 September 2011

Movies: Meek's Cutoff

Meek's Cutoff (2010) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1518812/

Western Drama, Fictionalized historical event

Set in 1845, families hired Stephen Meek to guide them across Oregon. At some point during their journey Meek leads them off the established trail along an alternate route to avoid the Blue Mountains.  We join the remainder of the wagon train during their journey as they are taking on water before crossing the Oregon desert, amounting to three families. Based on conversations between the remaining folk one can surmise at some point there were more folks following Meek, but no real clue as to how many set out, nor how many had died prior to us joining them. The travelers are angry at Meek because he seems lost, their wagons keep breaking on the rough terrain, their supplies are running low and the journey is taking much longer than anticipated. The menfolk are discussing hanging him.

Based on accounts of the first travelers that Meek led along this alternate route the film does hit some of the major points but isn't exactly historically accurate. The film shows only three families instead of the 200 or so wagons and 1000 folks that followed Meek along this alternate route. If you are interested you can get a quick summary at the Wikipedia article.  Chances are paring the train down to three families keeps it simple and emphasizes how alone these folks were taking that route.

Stars Bruce Greenwood as Meek, though I didn't recognize him at all under that massive beard and mustache. You'd probably recognize Greenwood from many films/TV shows and never knew his name. You would probably also recognize Will Patton, who plays one of the families following Meek, for the same reasons. His most recent work is TNT's "Falling Skies" series. The rest of the cast you might or might not recognize.

If you have trouble imagining how boring and uneventful crossing Oregon with a wagon pulled by  oxes this film will give you a pretty good idea. The film doesn't seem to go anywhere for a very long time, paralleling how lost the families in the film felt about their guide and whether or not he was even capable of doing the job he was hired for. I suspect the point to using three families was not only to cut down on the cast, but to emphasize the tedium, the conditions, how small the folks are in comparison with the wide expanse they are traveling.

Great vistas and location shots. Cast members played their parts well. I thought the film somewhat compelling to watch despite nothing much seeming to happen. Yes there are some dramatic moments. The moments may not be actually momentous, but are made bigger because the party is so small and alone.   When the film ends it ends in a really weird way. Something significant seems like it might just be developing and we're left hanging. At first I was wondering "what the hell? " but after I thought about it for a bit it seems to me the ending of the film fits the whole of the film. We're left just as lost and unsure about the future as the families are.

I liked the film, it was paced a little slow, but the pace works with the unconventional way of telling the story. Even the dangling ending makes sense in the context of the film. Not your everyday western film, and not a copy of a copy of a half-remembered ideal for a western film that seems to be the standard these days, with notable exceptions like Deadwood and a few others. 
Once my brain started down the path of thinking of modern westerns that found a new way to tell a story reminded me of "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford". Not your standard western fare either, but quite a very good movie in its own right.
Which then led me to think of the film "Dead Man". Again, unconventional story set in the late 1800's. Just thinking about that one makes me want to watch it again.

All three films, "Meek's," "Assassination," and "Dead Man," are all worth watching. Though in comparison "Meek's" might seem the tamer and more monotonous of the three. I think the monotony of "Meek's" is intentional to set the tone of the film, which is why I didn't mind it.

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