Movie review: ‘Meek’s Cutoff’ a spare, starchy Western of the mind
Trudging along in creaky covered wagons, mile after spine-jarring mile, day after wind-burned day, through arid alien landscapes, toward an uncertain, hardscrabble future – no wonder our pioneer ancestors were such stoical existentialists.
The three-family wagon train that scrambles along the Oregon Trail of 1845 in director Kelly Reichardt’s artfully plodding “Meek’s Cutoff” is the very embodiment of that pioneer pluck and reticence, of hope against harsh reality, of the forbidding mysteries of the unknown as well as the cruel delusions of Manifest Destiny.
That’s a heavy metaphorical load for any movie to carry, but Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond (who also wrote the director’s “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy”) pull it off with admirable grit and moody reflection to create a spare Western that bravely defies all the macho conventions of traditional Hollywood horse operas.
The story is drawn from a real-life 1845 incident in which wayward guide Stephen Meek lead 200 wagons dangerously astray in the Pacific Northwest, and 23 emigrants died before survivors were escorted to safety by friendly Indians.
Reichardt musters a modest budget and a stellar cast to give us an arty, meditative interpretation of the tale that will likely drive devotees of old-fashioned, action-filled, gun-toting Westerns to distraction.
A grizzled and unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood takes on the role of blowhard mountain man Meek, an Indian-hating wagon master who veers his pioneer flock dangerously off course.
The westward-bound families are the stoical Solomon and Emily Tetherow (Will Patton and Michelle Williams), the devout Glory and William White (Shirley Henderson and Neal Huff) and their young son (Tommy Nelson), and nervous newlyweds Tom and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan).
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