The year is 1845, the earliest days of the Oregon Trail, and a wagon team of three families has hired the mountain man Stephen Meek to guide them over the Cascade Mountains. Claiming to know a short cut, Meek leads the group on an unmarked path across the high plain desert, only to become lost in the dry rock and sage. Over the coming days, the emigrants must face the scourges of hunger, thirst and their own lack of faith in each other's instincts for survival. When a Native American wanderer crosses their path, the emigrants are torn between their trust in a guide who has proven himself unreliable and a man who has always been seen as the natural enemy.Written by
Early in the film, three women are walking across the baked desert following the wagons, presumably to the west. The guide may be off course but nobody would mistake east for west. Yet the womens' shadows are to their left as they walk, and since the sun would always be in the southern sky in Oregon, they could only be walking east. A basic detail that a director should not miss. See more »
[reading from Genesis]
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. And Adam called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living.
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It's the Oregon Trail, 1845, and nothing much is happening to a lost wagon train of three families. It's the film Meek's Cutoff, and mountain man Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is the guide whose cutoff has landed the voyagers without water and no idea where to get it or to their destination, traversing the Cascades.
As in any good seafaring tale where all you have is the ship as microcosm, so too this meager setup is rife with life or death problems, one of which is what route to take and the other what to do with a captured Native American (Rondeaux), who may or may not be helping them find their way to water. You just can't tell. Killing him is what Meeks suggests; sparing him is the decision Emily (Michelle Williams) makes with her gun pointed at Meeks as he prepares to shoot the Indian. Although she can't really qualify in the current Hanna, Lisbeth Salander kick-butt motif, Emily is impressive for her courage.
A story that begins with reading from Genesis about the Garden of Eden is asking for allegorical interpretation along the lines of man's sinfulness and the dangers free will poses. Along the way is a discussion about trust, not in the Lord, but in Meek or the Indian, representing two poles of thought about survival, and to whom the passengers must make allegiance as they decide which direction to go on. It's not difficult to see the universal applications about decisions we make and trust we honor.
Director Kelly Reichart keeps a steady Terrence Malick hand in it all, showing sunny, sweeping, barren landscapes where hope and despair can travel together and low-key hovels inside tents and under cliffs, where little hope can live with so little light. Even the landscapes are imprisoning as she sometimes seems to use a box-like aspect ratio rather than the wide screen almost always used in Westerns.
Sometimes it seems like Days of Heaven or Badlands, and other times it is its own moral landscape, slowly exposing the feeble underpinning of civility, which crumbles in the face of Meek's prejudice and the demands of survival.
Just don't look for an easy solution: Reichart is quite good at forcing you to ask what you would have done. She's giving no help as you make your cutoff to a better life.
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