Any Webster’s revisionist searching for a new way to define deadly, dreary or dreadful need look no further. Meek’s Cutoff describes them all. Here is a film in 2011 about a wagon train in 1845. Talk about forward-thinking. Worse still, it lacks warmth, action, humor or any kind of narrative structure, and it moves at the pace of a donkey with arthritis. John Ford must be growling in his grave.
Michelle Williams heads a cast of woebegone characters who look like they spent the time between takes looking at the Rolexes hidden in their waistbands in this New Age western directed by Kelly Reichardt, a plodding filmmaker devoted to small-scale naturalism (which translates as slow-motion camera pans and actors who mumble). She previously directed Ms. Williams in the low-budget Wendy and Lucy, a critically acclaimed but commercially disastrous little movie about a destitute woman who loses her dog on her way to Alaska to work in a fishing cannery. (Ms. Reichardt has little taste for themes with wide audience appeal.) This time, she focuses on the hardships, struggles and monotony (underline the word “monotony”) of six pioneers crossing the high-plains desert without a compass–particularly on those of the women; the men on the wagon train are all faceless ciphers. It’s the three women who tote everything they own on their heads, set up the tents, empty the wagons, build the fires and cook the beans. (The subject matter was better explored and vastly more entertaining in William Wellman’s 1951 film Westward the Women.) The daily grind is exacerbated by the fact that the pioneers have pulled away from the Oregon Trail and hired a mountain guide named Meek (Bruce Greenwood) who claims to know an unmarked short cut across the Cascade Mountains. “You got no idea what you’re dealing with here,” says Meek. Lowering wagons down steep, rocky inclines with ropes, losing their supplies and moving around in circles with no sign of mountains in the distance, they are clearly lost in the middle of nowhere and running out of confidence and water. The boredom is interminable. It is 40 minutes before the first Indian shows up.
But even in their darkest hours, the Christian spirit leads them to play fair, treating the lone Indian they capture not as a savage but as a human being. Real settlers were scalped for less. You wait to see if their benevolence will lead to salvation or death. In a reversal of fate, they’re in the Indian’s hands now, with Ms. Williams as the only one of the three women who chooses to protect the enemy from Meek’s racist violence. The other two women are England’s Shirley Henderson, who daydreams about her father’s pig farm, and Zoe Kazan, a wife driven to hysteria by fear. Nothing ever happens, and the movie ponderously just drags along from one rock to the next, hampered by muted dialogue no louder than the whisper of a drifting tumbleweed. (The forgettable men includes pickle-faced Paul Dano, who always mumbles his way through everything anyway.) Desperately in need of subtitles, the movie has no beginning or end, and nothing that remotely resembles a plot. It just snoozes along to the point where the captors become submissive followers. From here on, you’re on your own.
Ms. Reichardt does convey the misery of the Old West, but since you can’t understand a vast majority of the dialogue, all you get is a lot of sand and sage. Screenwriter Jon Raymond’s refusal to develop any of the characters beyond their need for a bathtub only intensifies the tedium. Who goes to the movies for 104 minutes of punishment? Where is John Wayne, now that we need him?
Running time 104 minutes
Written by Jonathan Raymond
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Starring Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano