Release Date: April 8, 2011 (limited); May 20, 2011 (wider)
Rating: PG (for some mild violent content, brief language and smoking)
Genre: Western, Drama
Run Time: 104 min.
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Actors: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Rod Rondeaux, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson

“Will the territory go American?” a woman asks early in Meek’s Cutoff. Set in 1845 Oregon, the northwest is a dry, barren, foreboding place that holds the promise of gold to those willing to risk life and limb to find it. It’s not yet American territory (that happens in 1848), but the characters’ pursuit of a better life in uncharted country represents an American impulse to settle the land and make a better life. The picture it paints of that task is unsettling yet vivid, with a central performance from Bruce Greenwood (Dinner for Schmucks) that should be remembered during awards season.

Among the film’s opening images is the word “LOST” being carved into wood by one of the men in a group traveling the Oregon Trail (Meek’s Cutoff becomes an offshoot of the Oregon Trail). Three families—Emily and Solomon Tetherow (Michelle Williams and Will Patton); Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan); and William and Glory White (Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson), with their son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson)—have hired Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to guide them across the Cascade mountains. The film is based on a true story, although in real life, Meek took a much larger party along with him.

Things aren’t going well, as the four-letter etched word indicates. As they travel in covered wagons, both humans and animals grow weary. Their destination is nowhere in sight, but more alarmingly, their water supply is running low and there are no signs of drinkable water along their route. They wonder aloud if hired guide Meek is deliberately misleading them in an effort to sabotage American independence. Then, minutes later, they use racially charged language that, while common at the time, serves as a reminder that independence was not shared by all.

The film is not an overt lesson in racial politics or historical atrocities, but it does not shy away from such things. When the traveling men capture a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) and Meek recommends killing him, Emily suggests the group use the man as a guide. He knows the land, and Emily hopes he can lead them to water. But Meek sows seeds of fear, recounting horrific tales of the Indians who, in the guise of helping the settlers, betrayed them into the hands of hostile native tribes.

Meek’s Cutoff is a 104-minute exploration of suspicion, mistrust and the American spirit, warts and all. Base instincts—survival, fear, the promise of wealth—keep the characters moving, haltingly, toward an uncertain destination. But it’s the journey, not the destination, that director Kelly Reichardt and writer Jonathan Raymond, who collaborated previously on Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy, have in mind. Which of the characters are essential to completing the journey? Who is expendable? Is the story a parable about the American experience?

Earlier this year, Peter Weir’s epic The Way Back told a man-against-nature story set against a vast, threatening landscape. But that film was about more than an elemental struggle: Weir’s characters were also fighting a dehumanizing belief system that sought to eliminate religion, and with it, hope.

Reichardt’s and Raymond’s story is similarly emblematic. The characters’ pioneering spirit and determination represent the American drive to settle the land, but also to eliminate or exploit threats to that goal. What motivates these Bible-spouting, grace-saying hymn singers to follow Meek? The reasons behind their journey are never fully explained, and the role faith plays in their decision-making is open to interpretation. But the expressions of faith, even from Meek himself, are heartfelt and moving, even though the characters act in ways that are less than charitable. In Meek, an unrecognizable Greenwood—a character actor best known for his role as Pike in the recent Star Trek reboot—has given one of his finest performances, a man who abides by his convictions even when they appear to be leading him and his followers astray.

Meek’s Cutoff is less interested in the motives behind its characters’ journey than it is in what the journey brings out in them. In stark, beautiful images (the film was shot by Chris Blauvelt), the viewer is made to identify with the characters—particularly Emily—as they head toward an uncertain fate. The film lacks resolution, but suggests that no matter how lush or verdant their destination might be, the costs of arriving at it should not be soon forgotten.

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity: The “n” word; “son of a b-tch”; “redskin”; a reference to “squaws” who start “looking white”; “heathen”; “lucky savage.”
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Some smoking.
  • Sex/Nudity: None.
  • Violence/Crime: A man is struck in the face; a woman uses a shotgun to fire a warning shot; later, she levels it at another man who is pointing a gun at someone else; Meek wants to kill the Indian guide, and he relays horror stories about the Indians’ treatment of the white man to make his case.
  • Religion/Morals: A boy reads aloud from Genesis; Jimmy’s mom labels exaggerating “the neighbor to a lie”; Meek says he doesn’t want to paint himself as anything other than a sinner, and he looks down on another character who, he says, is worse than a sinner; Emily says she sees only vanity; singing of “Nearer My God to Thee”; a man says grace and prays for protection and guidance in Jesus’ name.

Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@hotmail.com.