Although anything in the way of an engrossing dialog is absent, there is a mountain solid storyline accompanying the Oregon backdrop. Three families have hired a ranger/guide to assist them in crossing the Cascade Mountains. The Cascades are part of the Pacific Fire Ring indicating there are active volcanoes along the mass of rock extending through Oregon to Washington and through Canada. The history of the Mountain is full of romantic stories of explorers (Lewis and Clark among them) and travelers and families took refuge there to avoid severe inundations.
The three families' guide, Stephen Meek, leads them across a stretch of land that appears barren and inhospitable. They slowly become weary of their guide's veracity and judgment because he promised them a shortcut, not a perilous journey full of hardship. Nearing the cessation of their threadbare patience, the families stumble upon their sworn enemy, a Native American tribesman. They arrive at a figurative crossroad amidst a harsh topography chock-full of them. The families, the men and women, must make a critical decision about who to trust at a time when their energy and resolve are about expended.
Considering the agonizingly slow pace at which Meek's Cutoff moves, it will surprise many of you that the cast is star-studded. Bruce Greenwood portrays Stephen Meek, Paul Dano plays Thomas Gately, and Michelle Williams depicts Emily Tetherow. Paul Dano is quietly establishing himself as the new face of Western and prairie films. All of the actors demonstrate considerable patience by trusting and working within the director's constraints. Director Kelly Reichardt's modus operandi is to mimic an 1845 journey in which families face a life or death situation. There are no picture perfect images, or loud special effects, or deliberately eye-popping stunts. Instead, Reichardt has gone for broke in imitating life in order to create art. She could not have picked better talent to work with. Certainly the terrain is perfect, the traditional garbs remind me of the time period, and she has not included even a hint contemporary themes. In portraying 1845 she has succeeded brilliantly. However, art is not always beautiful, and perhaps its glaring flaws are what makes it so unique and treasurable. As a theater film Meek's Cutoff would be a Box Office disaster. Watched by imaginative and patient critics in a controlled setting, this will be recognized as a brilliant movie for what is accomplishes with so very little. The cast and the director have accomplished something important, but I cannot vouch for its mass appeal. That might be a good thing folks but time will tell.
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