There’s something to be said for choosing to highlight the breakdown-inspiring monotony of prairie life. There’s also something to be said for Michelle Williams’ ability to embody a slightly damaged but still empowered heroine. The combination of the two, however, rarely creates an exciting viewing experience — and Meek’s Cutoff is no exception.
It’s 1845, and three families hire pioneer Stephen Meek (Greenwood) to take them across the Oregon Trail. While crossing the Cascade Mountains, Meek claims to know a shortcut that, it turns out, results in dehydration, hunger and broken wagons for his crew. When a Native American is spotted by the intrepid Emily Tetherow (Williams), the travelers take him hostage and are forced to decide whether to trust the man they cannot communicate with or to listen to the man they thought they trusted.
Cinematographer Chris Blauvelt does a phenomenal job of showing the viewer the extent of the travelers’ pain, interspersing lingering shots of sage brush and cutting to Michelle Williams gulping down the small amount of water she can afford to drink. But like a book with beautiful yet overdone prose, not even the imagery can make this film any more engaging.
One plotline that could have given the film far more excitement was the almost-sexual fear and friendship between Emily and the Native American. However, the racial tension within the group is introduced far too late and is both underdeveloped and unresolved.
As a result, much like the characters in Meek’s Cutoff, the viewer is forced on an hour-and-a-half journey with no glimmer of hope and no ending.
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Rated PG, 104 min