Meek’s Cutoff defies easy description but if you can imagine an adaptation of the video game “Oregon Trail” being directed by Terence Malick you’ll be in the ballpark. It’s a beautifully-shot but languidly-paced, thinly-plotted Western that is light on character, even lighter on dialogue (there’s practically none for the first ten minutes), and heavy on atmosphere. You can probably already tell whether you’re more likely to fall in love with “Meek’s Cutoff” or shrug your shoulders at it. Count me in the latter.
We join an arduous trek over the barren, desolate Cascade Mountains in 1845. Three couples and the young son of one of them are being guided by grizzly Stephen Meek (an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood, looking like the unholy spawn of Jeff Lebowski and ZZ Top, and sounding like George Kennedy in Cool Hand Luke), who may or may not have gotten them lost and far from any water sources. Eventually, the capture of a nameless, stoic Native American (Rod Rondeaux) divides the group: do they kill him outright, as Meek advises, or rely on him to guide them to water and send them in the right direction? Will he lead them to safety or into a fatal ambush?
Leading the charge for replacing the shifty and seemingly incompetent Meek with him are the Tetherows, played by Will Patton and Michelle Williams, the latter of whom essayed the lead role so beautifully in director Kelly Reichardt’s previous effort, the contemporary micro-budgeter Wendy and Lucy. She shines once again here, continuing to prove herself one of the more versatile actresses of her generation, but the rest of the cast simply isn’t given much to work with (the script is solely credited to previous Reichardt collaborator Jon Raymond). It takes a special kind of talent to render such unique presences as Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano and Shirley Henderson so utterly bland and negligible.
The story brings to mind a handful of contemporary issues, not the least of which being the current firestorm over immigration; it’s hard to watch the group torn between their dependence on the Indian and their varying degrees of mistrust of him and not think of the Arizona law and (now) Lou Dobbs. It also raises such topics as the gender roles of the period (the women do all the work but have practically no say in the decision-making) and racism (Williams idly remarks that she and the other wives are “working like niggers”) but frustratingly, all it does is raise them; the oddly structured plot declines to build to a climax or anything other than a surprisingly abrupt and unresolved ending, leaving one practically expecting the end crawl to consist of group discussion questions.
Kudos to Reichardt, Raymond and Williams for attempting such an unusual and ambitious project, but I simply found it too remote and unsatisfying to consider it more than an interesting failure. Fans of Malick’s later work are likely to swoon to its dreamy imagery, but to the rest I recommend the far more compelling and heartbreaking girl-and-her-dog story “Wendy and Lucy”, which has them all working at the top of their game. The insatiably curious are welcome to check this one out, but don’t say you weren’t warned.
[Screen Comment’s Arthur Tiersky was in New York for the 48th New York Film Festival]