Set in 1845, Meek’s Cutoff is a remarkable, disquieting, thought-provoking film.
On the one hand, it’s the simple tale of a handful of emigrant families who’ve been lead off the main Oregon Trail by their braggardly guide and out into the vast, droughty wilderness. Under this light, it’s as plodding as the footfalls of oxen, the soundtrack is the whipping wind and the moan of wagon axles taking strain, the action is the monotony of grinding of coffee beans, kindling of fires, kneading of bread. On the other hand though, as the realization sets in that they are completely lost, as the water runs out, and as desperation sets in, the movie becomes quite something else: claustrophobic in the vastness, terrifying and horrific in the dust-drenched, dwindling options, a thriller that moves at walking pace.
It’s a Western of course, so there are Indians, and cooking fires, and long-bore rifles, but the action such as it is, is mostly witnessed from the wives’ points of view, trudging in long dresses through the scrub, whispering behind shaded bonnets, straining to hear the decisions being made by the men that will irrevocably affect their lives.
So, it’s strange and stern and sad and it’s really worth seeing. It actually filmed in Oregon, in the lands where outward settlers actually passed, and the screen ration makes it feel even more authentic. And one last thing; who’d’ve thought Michelle Williams, of all the Dawson’s Creek alumni, would morph into a superstar. She’s completely fantastic here. (Shirley Henderson too; love her.)