Meek’s Cutoff

 

Meek’s Cutoff

Written by Jon Raymond

Cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt

Production Design by David Doernberg

Costumes by Vicki Farrell

Sound Design by Leslie Shatz & Felix Andrew

Music by Jeff Grace

Produced by Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani, Todd Haynes, Elizabeth Cuthrell & David Urrutia

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

2010

 

Cast:

Michelle Williams

Bruce Greenwood

Will Patton

Paul Dano

Zoe Kazan

Shirley Henderson

Neal Huff

Tommy Nelson

Rod Rondeaux

 

Studio:

Theatrical: Evenstar Films

Video: Oscilloscope Laboratories

 

Video:

Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

Resolution: 1080p

Codec: MPEG-4 AVC

Feature Size: BD50

Bit Rate: High (30-40 Mbps)

Runtime: 103 minutes

Chapters: 19

Region: All

 

Audio: 

English DTS-HD MA 5.1

English LPCM 2.0

 

Subtitles: 

English

 

Extras:

• The Making of Meek’s Cutoff (9.30)

• Original Theatrical Trailer

• Essay by Richard Hell

• DVD copy

 

Presentation:

Custom Paper Gatefold Blu-ray case: 

BRD x 1 + DVD x 1

Release Date: September 13, 2011



Synopsis:

The year is 1845, the earliest days of the Oregon Trail, and a wagon train of three families has hired mountain man Stephen Meek to guide them over the Cascade Mountains. Claiming to know a shortcut, 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 face the scourges of hunger, thirst and their own lack of faith in one another'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 a natural born enemy.


     


About the Director:

American landscapes and narratives of the road are themes that run throughout Kelly Reichardt’s work. MEEK’S CUTOFF, shot on the dry plains of Oregon’s high desert, offers a vision of the earliest days of American frontier culture. WENDY AND LUCY, filmed along the railroad tracks that surround an Oregon suburb, reveals the limits and depths of people’s duty to each other in tough times. Reichardt’s film OLD JOY is an exploration of contemporary liberal masculinity, set in the tamed wilderness of the Pacific Northwest.  ODE, a super-8 retelling of the Legend of Billy Joe McAllister, is set around the creeks and underpasses of the rural south. Her first feature, RIVER OF GRASS, was shot in her hometown of Dade County, Florida. Sun-drenched highways, bus stations and dilapidated motels were the denatured setting for this lovers-on-the-run story.  Reichardt is the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship and teaches at Bard College.


     


The Movie : 8

Critical Reaction:

New York Times

The first thing you see in “Meek’s Cutoff,” after a hand-scrawled title card placing the action in the Oregon Territory in 1845, is a small group of settlers fording a river. It’s a treacherous, tedious undertaking, and Kelly Reichardt, the director of this tough, quiet revelation of a movie, films it in an uninflected style that makes everything feel at once mundane and mysterious. We are seeing the world more or less exactly as it looked to those hardy, foolish souls on screen (and almost forgetting to notice that most of them are actors we recognize from elsewhere). The way that world looked to them was unimaginably strange, every hill and rock loaded with portent, promise and menace.

. . . as in so many westerns, basic ethical questions arise with stark, life-and-death force.  Ms. Reichardt is too wise and self-assured a filmmaker to offer easy answers. “Meek’s Cutoff” is as unsentimental and determined as Ms. Williams’s character, its absolutely believable heroine. It is also a bracingly original foray into territory that remains, in every sense, unsettled. – A. O. Scott


     


Chicago Sun-Times

To set aside its many other accomplishments, "Meek's Cutoff" is the first film I've seen that evokes what must have been the reality of wagon trains to the West. They were grueling, dirty, thirsty, burning and freezing ordeals. Attacks by Indians were not the greatest danger; accidents and disease were. Over the years from watching movie Westerns, I've developed a composite image of wagon trains as Conestoga parades led by John Wayne, including lots of women wearing calico dresses, and someone singing "Red River Valley" beside the campfire. Not here. Director Kelly Reichardt's strategy is to isolate her story in the vastness of the Oregon Trail, where personalities seem to weaken in the force of the wilderness.


. . . "Meek's Cutoff" is more an experience than a story. It has personality conflicts, but isn't about them. The suspicions and angers of the group are essentially irrelevant to their overwhelming reality. Reichardt has the courage to establish that. She doesn't make it easy for us with simplistic character conflict. She's genuinely curious about the hardly-educated pioneers who were brave, curious or hopeful enough to set out on such a dangerous journey. – Roger Ebert


     

 

LensView:

What strikes us immediately is the 1.33:1 aspect ratio – as if we are taking a step backward into the Western movies of yesteryear.  The next thing we notice is how far removed the subject of the camera is, and remains for several minutes.  We see a scattered few people fording a river at a speed that would make Tarkovsky envious.  Few miles are covered on horseback, but instead they walk alongside their wagons or lead their animals. 

 

No one utters a word for something like five minutes. The first piece of dialogue is the written word “LOST” carved onto a dead tree stump by one of the younger men. The first words spoken are read aloud from the Bible by a boy, and then fade into the night.  The first conversation we hear is a mumbled monologue by Meek to a boy about his exploits with a bear.  (We wonder if he has confused himself with the legendary Davy Crockett.)  A meaningful conversation doesn’t present itself until the crisis is met head on: What to do about Meek?  And his bragging is only the tip of the cactus but we can only imagine it was what suckered these ignorant, if courageous pioneers in the first place.


     

 

Prior to our first sighting, this small detachment of three wagons and their families left the main stem some while ago in hopes of finding a shorter route to the fabled Willamette Valley of Oregon. They have employed one Joseph Meek (Greenwood, bearded, buckskinned and, for all we know, dubbed by Tom Waits), to lead them. But now they regret their decision and, in their anxiety begin to think that Meek is deliberately diverting them from their aim in order to depopulate the territory.  Politics aside, the families are in a real pickle, since Meek, a tedious teller of stories without conviction, might be their only hope of finding water, let alone take them to their promised land.  Meanwhile there is the threat of Indians and the simple fact that neither these travelers – or us, for that matter, have a clue as to where they are.

 

I’m not sure if it’s a liability or not to have historical and geographic knowledge of the journey and plight of our protagonists. The title card tells us “Oregon 1845” - two years after the “Oregon Trail” that pioneers could have used as far east as Independence, Missouri, was cleared sufficiently for the passage of wagons all the way across the Rockies to The Dalles in north-central Oregon along the Columbia River basin, and one year  before the trail was cleared around Mt Hood to the Willamette Valley.  From the visual evidence and from what little we glean from the dialogue, they left the Columbia River further east, somewhere near what would later be the border between Idaho, Oregon and Washington and headed south looking for a way to cross the mountains to their west. Well I could a told ‘em that ain’t gonna work, but such is the advantage of hindsight.


     

 

Trusting in Meek’s promises, they have not only found no way across the Cascades - hell, they haven’t even found those gorgeous mountains yet - they’ve run out of water, and eventually have to rely on a lone Indian they pick up along the way. Their relationship to the Indian becomes the dramatic core of the film.  Some of them are fearful and mistrustful, certain he is leaving signs for his buddies to follow and sneak up on them and kill them in their sleep.  Others, like Meek, want to kill him and be done with it.  Still others feel that the Indian knows this country better than Meek (duh!) and will find water eventually. 

 

Communication between the travelers and the Indian is not just rudimentary – it sucks, and often runs at cross purposes.  Though they try to impress upon him the urgency of their need, it is curious that no one brings up the obvious: the Indian cannot go without water any more than they can, so he would have a vested interest in finding water as well.  True or not, no one points this out – further evidence of the impasse.


     

 

Image: 10/9

Well I’ll be hornswaggled if this might not be the best Blu-ray image of a live action movie (not counting IMAX and similar sources) since the birth of high definition.  The daylit scenes are exemplary enough, but it’s the lowlit scenes that separate the sheep from the steers.  Nary a whisper of noise, and no brightening neither.


While the transfer might be just about picture perfect, I can’t say that I’m entirely convinced by some of the photographic choices imposed by Ms. Reihardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt.  There is a mind-bending transition that begins at 6:10 minutes into the film that could only have been accomplished with digital blending tools.  It’s a surreal effect as distant horse and wagons make an entrance across what at first is taken to be a strip of unsupported sky and gradually sorts itself into the next piece of terrain.  As I say, it’s a surreal and eye-catching effect, but what is it doing in a film that goes out of its way to avoid the use of fill light, especially for the ladies lost in the shadows of their caps?  The two ideas don’t really work in the same movie, especially as the obvious bit of digital manipulation is the only instance in the film.  The meagre absence of fill is problematic in its own right.  The effect works well enough in two respects: it suggests the bleakness of the pioneers’ position in this wilderness and shadows their true feelings.  But I found it tiring to the eye to try to make out what wasn’t there against strong backlight.  On the other hand, Clint Eastwood did much the same for The Outlaw Josie Wales, so who am I t complain?


     

 

Audio & Music: 5~8/9

The audio mix is a hit and miss affair: most of the time, especially when it captures the sounds of the trail: running water (when there was water) the rattling of the wagons across all manner of ground, the sound of the night, the wind, insects, an isolated rifle shot, and the rarely heard music.  Dialogue is another matter.  Listen to the group discuss what to do with there freshly caught Indian at 49:10 minutes. The relative volume, size and placement of the dialogue is all over the map – and switching to 2.0 doesn’t really help much.

 

Extras: 1

As if exhausted by the excellence of their image and sound, Oscilloscope doesn’t seem to have much left for bonus features.  The single segment on the disc – titled “The Making of Meek’s Cutoff” – is very strange indeed, consistent as it may be with the minimalist approach of the feature film itself.  Over nine and a half minutes, the camera (again in 1.33:1) follows crew and actors while they build the wagons, train to walk the walk of pioneers.  Except for the occasional random wild track of barely audible dialogue, the only thing we hear is the sound of the wagons, the animals and nature.  Considering the wealth of information that could have been shared I felt insulted.


     

 

Recommendation: 8

Despite the sly, if cynical bonus feature and odd audio track, this new Blu-ray from Oscilloscope comes warmly recommended.



Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

September 4, 2011



     



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