I finally saw “Meek’s Cut-Off,” a 2011 film by Kelly Reichhardt, who apparently made another movie that was so well-received that critics were prepared to assign a whole lot of dramatic import to this film as well. The glowing reviews (and here) are an exercise in willful movie viewing: although “Meek’s Cut-Off” is beautiful, it is also painfully boring. The sound is so bad that most of the dialogue is inaudible — but you won’t have missed anything, because the dialogue never reveals anything important about any of these characters, all of whom are cliches with all the life and verve drained out of them: perky pioneer gal, noble savage, garrulous con artist, hysterical young wife. I don’t mind cliched characters done well, but these were Cliches on Clonopin. I know they were all tired from walking and walking and walking across parched earth, but isn’t it the filmmaker’s job to bring something to life, not to put the viewer to sleep?
The premise is simple: three pioneer families heading west to Oregon leave the wagon trail under the guidance of Stephen Meek, who doesn’t know where in Sam Hill he’s going but who has convinced them that he knows a short-cut. Guess what happens next.
They get lost. They get thirsty. They have small arguments, that many reviewers seem to find intense and powerful, and that I found less far dramatically engaging than the average church coffee hour. They encounter a Cayuse Indian (Ron Rondeaux) and take him captive. Michelle Williams sews the man’s shoe, uttering one of the only interesting lines in the movie, “I want him to owe me something.” Nothing ever comes of this premise. The Cayuse Indian is merely Mysterious Other. Meeks thinks the group should hang him. No one else finds this suggestion reasonable and at the only moment of real tension in the film, Michelle (see? I can’t even remember her character’s name) protects the Cayuse man from being shot by Meeks. Nothing whatsoever happens as a result of this confrontation. The pioneers just keep walking and keep being thirsty, and keep being lost.
There is an accident with one of the wagons, which is described by one reviewer as “terrible,” but that seems merely like a sad inconvenience to the characters. They’re more like sleepwalkers than pioneers. Did they take Valium with them on the trail?
Bruce Greenwood plays Stephen Meek in a horrible fright wig and fake beard — something I am amazed none of the reviews felt obligated to mock, but I will — he looks like he just rolled off the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and onto the Oregon Trail. He overacts sumpin’ terrible but his dialogue is such garbage, why not?
Michelle Williams is good. She’s good in everything. She is also the only character with a discernible pulse.
Shirley Henderson, a wonderful British actress who was the main reason I wanted to see this film (Shirley Henderson! In a leading role! Yay!) is utterly wasted as Glory, a largely pregnant and silent sufferer in the unmerry band. They wasted SHIRLEY HENDERSON? They stuck her in a calico dress with a pillow under it, hid her behind a big, floppy bonnet and gave her nothing interesting to do or say?
Paul Dano, a young actor who managed to hold his own against Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood,” another parable of Manifest Destiny, is practically invisible here. He’s one of ten people on the screen for two hours, so it’s a testament to the dullness of the plot and characters that the credits roll and you rouse yourself out of your stupor and recall, “Oh yes, Paul Dano. He was in this.”
Now, don’t tell me I just can’t appreciate a good, slow-moving, elegiac movie. That’s not true. I loved Terence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World,” and I’m the kind of gal who can find something profound to reflect upon while watching a cat sleep. I know that the wagon trail was slow and dull and I get that, and thank you, Sound Man, for the incessant squeak of the wagon wheel. Nice touch.
But if I’m going to commit myself to the viewing of a feature-length film, it should not require me to do all the heavy lifting by way of filling in the empty spaces left by skimpy plot, undeveloped characters, and one of the laziest, most cop-out WTH endings in recent cinematic history.
I should have gone with my guts and Cut-Off Meek after about twenty minutes.