The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, January 9, 2012

Meek's Cutoff

What truly defines a movie? Is it a highly stylized story heavy on visuals and twists and turns with an in your face camera technique? Or is the opposite, a minimalist style focusing on a more realistic visual, a slice of life storytelling? The answer of course is both and neither, falling somewhere in between. It comes down to personal taste what an individual viewer likes or dislikes. Falling in the minimalist style is an indie film from 2010, Meek's Cutoff.

It's 1845 and Americans are starting to drift west, some looking for new lives and others for riches. Among those travelers is a three-wagon train headed by trail guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Traveling with her older husband, Solomon (Will Patton), young Emily (Michelle Williams) is part of the little train heading for Oregon. Meek has decided to leave the main trail, heading west separate from the known route. The settlers go along with the plan, assuming the guide knows what he's doing. Does he though? The water supply starts to get dangerously low. Meek and Solomon manage to capture an Indian that's been tailing the group, leaving them with a decision. Do they entrust the Indian to guide them to water or continue blindly, hoping to find some? It's a decision that doesn't come easy.

Let's get this out of the way early. I hated this movie. We're not talking an indifference like I was disappointed or a mild dislike. Hated this movie. Seeing reviews and all the awards it won at film festivals all over the world, I was curious. Something has to be positive here that so many critics and moviegoers saw an appeal in it. Right? You would think so. And now reading the generally positive reviews, I don't feel like I missed a thing. If anything, I feel like so many others got duped. But that's for you to decide, not me yelling at you.

Minimalist, existential, lyrical, all these thoughts went through my head as I watched this movie. With a 104-minute movie, basically nothing happens at all. N-O-T-H-I-N-G. Director Kelly Reichart makes a conscious effort to make this a real story. The camera is placed in front of the actors, and that's it. No close-ups, no movement, just the action (using that word loosely) unfolding in front of us. Whole scenes of wagons moving across the horizon drift on and on. Minutes go by with not a word spoken. When the dialogue does come along, it's mind-numbingly repetitive and pointless. I applaud Reichart for the approach she took. It's different, I'll give her that much. But a 104-minute movie that feels like it took days to watch?  An epic failure.

The approach Reichart takes is that small window into the lives of these settlers. We know little to nothing about any of their past lives and learn little else by the end of the movie. Existential picture of the individuals in a survival, life or death scenario? Possibly. As a result though, I had no personal investment with any of these people. I was rooting for Michelle Williams and Will Patton, not Emily and Solomon Tetherow. They're representative of people, not actual flesh and blood people. The other settlers include Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan as one couple and Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson as another with son Tommy Nelson. Greenwood gets the most showy of all the parts, but that's not saying much. Stuntman Rod Rondeaux plays the Indian.

Then there's the ending, the definition of ambiguity. Open-ended doesn't begin to describe how 'Meek' ends. Add another check in the 'Surprise Column' that viewers thought it was a potentially happy ending. For me, it is an epic downer ending. The whole tone and style of the movie points to a downer, more realistic ending, but I could be off-base. Moral of the story? It's a judgment call that each viewer will have to make for themselves.

I just don't know what to make of this movie at all. Is it supposed to be of that existential variety, making a bigger, broader statement about survival, about living and dying? Or is it just the story of a small group of settlers moving westward desperately fighting for survival? On either level, 'Meek' didn't work for me. I hate judging a movie as 'boring' because it sounds too easy on my part. That's the problem though. No energy, no interest, no positive impression at all. Give this one a wide berth and steer clear.

Meek's Cutoff <---trailer (2010): */****

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