Hey ladies, your wagon train come here often?

Theatrical Release Date: 05/06/2011
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux
Rated: PG for some mild violent content, brief language, and smoking.
Runtime: 1 hour, 44 minutes


There’s words up on dem dar hills.

As someone who grew up in the 80′s, I fondly remember the video game Oregon Trail (there used to be a playable version of the old school version online but I can’t find any that don’t require some form of download).

For those unfamiliar with it, you were put in charge of a wagon train headed for Oregon – shooting bears, fording rivers, contracting cholera and trying to make your provisions last the entire way. Lovely status screens kept you apprised of your progress like this one:

Well, director Kelly Reichardt and writer Jonathan Raymond have teamed up for the third time (“Wendy and Lucy“, “Old Joy”) to bring “Meek’s Cutoff” to the silver screen; which I take joy in likening to the video game because of its setting (1845 Oregon) and that it centers on a wagon train trusting a hired guide named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to bring them over the Cascade Mountains. (I kept anxiously awaiting the news that someone would contract some disease or another.)

The ‘Cutoff’ in the title implies the shortcut Meek promises the three families that he can utilize to make their trip quicker. But if this was an easy journey, there wouldn’t be a film now would there? As the days go by, the families begin to wonder if Meek simply guessed and is leading them astray. Then a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) crosses their path and after his subsequent capture, they hope to use his knowledge of the land to lead them out of the desolate wilderness where lack of water is quickly becoming a problem.

What makes the film so interesting is the perspective Reichardt takes; that is, the story is told from the women’s point of view. Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson are the audience’s guide through this ordeal. This is made especially clear in scenes where we are left a few paces away with the women as they try to glean snippets of conversations the men have with each other. It’s an effective technique and allows us to remain not only observers of their actions but also to question the rationale behind them.

And although the overt story concerns the well-being of these families and their newfound enemy-turned-guide, there are political allusions one could draw. We see an almost foolhardy leader (Meek), giving orders seeming without all the necessary information. There’s a distrust of this unknown enemy (the Native American), who is interrogated via violence and whose fate is left up to the will of the families. Draw whatever conclusions you’d like to make.

And then, as the final icing on the political allusion cake, there is no clear cut resolution. Reichardt leaves us with the option of finishing the story as we see fit, based on the information given to us. It can go a few different ways and each individual’s amount of optimism will probably play a factor as to how they see the story resolving. However, this does mean that anyone who expects concrete answers in a film and needs the director to provide their overt take will be out of luck.

While the film itself generally lands itself in the latter category of Entertainment vs. Art, that doesn’t lessen the impressive, albeit subtle, work on display. It really feels as if we’re lost in the Oregon wilderness along with these families; reminiscent of the 2002 Gus Van Sant film, “Gerry”.

Due to its meager budget ($2 million according to boxofficemojo.com), there isn’t a lot of spit and polish (I even spotted two boom mics that drifted into the shot) but that grittiness adds to the realism factor. All of the actors deliver fine performances, most notably Williams and Greenwood – whose diametrically opposed ideologies become clearer and clearer as the film develops.

As long as you understand, and want, to experience a film of this type, “Meek’s Cutoff” delivers the goods and I’m giving it a 3.5 out of 5. It closes the so-called “Oregon Trilogy” (the three films Reichardt and Raymond have worked on together … in Oregon … hence the name) and continues to illustrate the artistry and vision of its director whose praise is well-deserved and whose future work commensurately deserves our notice.

3.5 out of 5