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Meek's Cutoff

Kelly Reichardt examines pioneer folklore

Jun. 28, 2011
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Covered wagons pulled by lumbering oxen slowly roll into a river across the wild, desolate country. The scenery opening Meek's Cutoff is familiar from countless Westerns, as is the scenario of a wagon train in danger, but otherwise the similarities run dry. Many scenes are shot from long range; minutes pass during the opening procession of the wagon train with no sound heard but the murmur of nature; the sparse dialogue is often overheard as if from a distance or by an eavesdropper. Director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy) chucks the usual Aaron Copland orchestral drama in favor of a subtle score and ambient sound. Her frequent collaborator, screenwriter Jon Raymond, plays with recognizable types in unusual situations.

Meek's Cutoff
is the decade's first significant Western and one of the genre's few shining stars since the new century began.

The origins of the small party of travelers are never identified, but one suspects they may be a sectarian group. The first audible words come from a child reciting, in King James prose, the passage in Genesis on the expulsion from the Garden. Most of the men shrug and follow the herd while one or two seem guided by higher principles when the going gets rough, and at least one of their wives becomes a motivating force of inspiration.

At first, the titular character, Stephen Meek, seems to be the film's concession to central casting. Wearing fringed buckskin and an enormous mane of beard and hair, he's the teller of tall tales, the loquacious scout hired by the group to guide them to Oregon Territory, then a frontier land disputed with the British. But Meek's racism toward the natives rises above the usual assumption of cultural superiority by settlers of Western European heritage. Upon capturing an Indian hiding near their camp, Meek prepares to kill him, and alludes to exterminating all the "heathens." The settlers in the wagon train debate the course they must take.

Meek's Cutoff
moves in pace with the wagons as they are pulled along the unrutted surface of an increasingly dry, inhospitable land. The cameras linger as the women wash clothes and the men fill the water barrels in the river forded in the opening scene; they place the viewer amid the dust and heat of the trudging journey where every drop of water becomes more precious than gold. Meek's Cutoff sets the folklore of self-reliant pioneers on its head. They must rely on an unreliable scout to bring them to the Promised Land, a violent man who, for all his bluster, is lost.

Through June 30 at the Downer Theatre.


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