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Film Review

Meek's Cutoff

When we think of the pioneers trekking westward, we tend to flash back to the many films that depicted them, their wagon trains always attacked by Indians. Sometimes there are actually dirty sunburned faces, but mostly it is a romanticized vision that is far removed from the terrible reality of walking half way across a continent. Rarely does an American film convey that reality. How did the early pioneers have the courage to cross the country on foot? Few had done so before, and fewer imagined how difficult and dangerous it would be. It took no less courage to cross the immensity of the western plains and mountains, than to first cross the ocean. both were equally dangerous and unknown. When someone said good bye to their friends in Ohio, it was really goodbye. They would probably never see their homes again. In "Meek's Cutoff", Kelly Reichardt, the director of "Wendy and Lucy" and "Old Joy", has given us a vision of this journey that seems as authentic as it is possible to create on screen.

It is 1845, and three families, each with their wagon pulled by a pair of oxen, have hired a mountain man as a guide to help them get to Oregon. The guide, Stephen Meeks, with long unkempt hair and beard, is talkative, obnoxious and boastful, but claims to know a shortcut. The group has been in high desert for weeks, is running short of water, and is becoming increasingly skeptical of Meeks' claim to know the short cut. They continue west, through the scattered sage brush and arid landscape, but the oxen are suffering, and the wagons need to be lightened. We see a cherished rocking chair ("that was your mother's") pushed out the back, and watch it grow smaller as it is left behind among the sage brush. The three women walk along side the wagons in order to not further burden the oxen, while the young boy rides inside or on a donkey. One of the women is visibly pregnant, but does more than her share of chores. Michelle Williams' character, while gathering firewood, encounters a lone Indian a few feet away, staring at her. Frightened, she runs back to the wagon, grabs a rifle, loads and fires. Ultimately the Indian becomes part of the story, and much of the tension is created by not knowing whom they can trust to find the way, the Indian or their guide.

This sounds much like other westerns, but "Meek's Cutoff" is totally different in power, tone and viewpoint. The film opens in silence, with the wagons fording a river, the oxen up to their heads in water, and the women wading across, waist deep, with baskets on their heads. We only hear the river and some muffled conversation. Once across, they set up camp, which takes much work by the women. The women wear long gingham dresses with sun bonnets, and the camera often looks into their sun burned faces, framed by their bonnets. The scenes follow the daily rhythm of making camp, building a fire, cooking food, and packing up in the morning. The men generally handle the animals and the wagons, although when the men are away or doing something else, the women are fully capable of handling the animals. One brief scene shows Michelle Williams' character standing next to the oxen, and one slightly nudges her with his horn. She barely notices. Another scene shows her loading and firing a flint lock musket, no easy job. The pacing is slow, emphasizing the grueling day after day walk through dry landscapes, punctuated by hills and rock outcrops. There is the constant sound of the wagons and the squeak of wheels, sometimes conversation, but rarely prolonged. More than anything else, Reichardt's film is distinguished by very close observation, and the story, as seen by the women. The men sometimes gather to discuss a problem, but it never includes the women. Instead we see the women's view, from a distance, with snatches of conversation drifting over to them. There is drama here, but always understated, and a constant tension, wondering whether they will reach water before their animals can no longer continue. These are strong women, in a way that seems unimaginable to us today. The acting is uniformly outstanding, with convincing depictions of people risking all. The cinematography is outstanding and often haunting, with the landscape being as much a character in the story as the actors. There are so many memorable scenes, but a long shot of the wagons silhouetted on a ridge could have come from a Bergman film. Indeed, the entire film has a power and poignancy to it that is rare. I loved and was very moved by "Meek's Cutoff". This is a great film, one that should be seen on the big screen. Just opened at the Embarcadero.

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