I have a long standing opinion that the very worst movie is that which does not entertain. It's an opinion that ruffles a few feathers, mainly because it allows me to rank an occasional complete mess over something that is more polished, but easier to fall asleep to. But entertain is a loaded word, and sometimes more fast-paced products have no where near the intrigue of something more methodical in nature. But where my own philosophy manages to trip even me up is in the case if movies that make a point of displaying boredom and/or suffering (and their effects) by enacting them upon their audience. Over the last several years, i've witnessed no movie better to discuss in this vein than Meek's Cutoff.
Bruce Greenwood plays the titular Stephen Meek, a guide who has been hired by three married couples to lead an Oregon Trail expedition in 1845. Despite Meek's claims of getting ever-closer to their destination, the group begins to lose faith in their eccentric, big-talking tour guide, and the despair of being lost in a desert wasteland begins to set in on them. Leading the dissention is Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), whose steely, stoic exterior thinly veils an ocean of contemplation. She and the other girls have no choice but put their trust in the collection of four men (Will Patton, Paul Dano, Neal Huff, and Greenwood) who hardly involve them in decision making at all. But when a sudden twist occurs in their journey, everyone must decide where their alliances lie.
If you're the type that decries movies for being too languid in pace, you can literally just stop reading this right now. Meek's Cutoff's pace is glacial at its fastest, as Director Kelly Reichardt and Writer Jonathan Raymond do everything in their power to make you feel the boredom and isolation of the wagon train. With its largely uneventful plot, Meek's is just the kind of artfully-made movie that the less patient will dismiss as being boring, and never consider again. The mind tends to wander during the course of the movie, but in some strange way, that's almost fitting. Even when quiet stretches (and their are many, including a gorgeous opening sequence) send one's thoughts in random directions, the aesthetic of the movie is ever dominant. One can almost feel the dust in their nostrils, or the frustration of never actually knowing your degree of progress. While not exactly a rollicking good time at the flicks, the slow-motion trudge of Meek's Cutoff proves wholly effective in prying a physical reaction from its viewers, which is a pretty damn impressive feat.
Though the movie is often too focused on its purely observational stance to develop characters with much depth, the actors on hand give performances that stick. The husband and wife chemistry between Patton and Williams is perfectly observed, as is Williams' general sense of stead-fast autonomy and determination. But it's Greenwood who really steals the picture, complete with showy, gravely accent and enormous, mountain-man beard. I understand that facial goes a long way in disguising an actor's identity, but Greenwood here is among the most unrecognizable that I've seen an actor in years, as invisible as Heath Ledger was in The Dark Knight, if not more so.
Though working in the industry for many years, this is Cinematographer Chris Blauvelt's first feature film, and it shows about zero percent of the time. Boldly shot in a 1.37:1 frame (a box with rounded corners that only occupies a slight majority of a present day movie screen, a la early films from the 20's-40's), Blauvelt's observation of endless, desolate plains is as beautiful as it is agonizing, and his use of light and the lack there of is nothing short of masterful. The score, written by Jeff Grace, harkens back to the screw-turning numbers of the similarly set There Will Be Blood, and just as in that movie, it's a constant reminder that there's more eeriness afoot than the minimal words of its characters would suggest. Meek's Cutoff is deeply steeped in analogy and philosophy, but to muddy the knowing ambiguity of the film with my own perceptions would be all wrong. What one sees in this tale of the lostness of yesteryear travelers is clearly meant to be up to the individual to decide, the boldest move in a movie full of them. I'm still working through the movie myself, and wouldn't be the least surprised if my final opinion of it turns out to be decidedly different than the one I've arrived at presently. Regardless, Meek's Cutoff is a fascinating watch whose implications will rattle around in your head for weeks to come. That is if you have the patience to take the journey.