To call “Meek’s Cutoff” a unique film would be an understatement. It’s a historical western of sorts from director Kelly Reichardt that follows three families and their guide as they travel on the Oregon Trail. Reichardt certainly doesn’t romanticize the American frontier life instead creating one of the most genuine portrayals of the hardships and struggles that faced the settlers in the new territory. But while the movie draws you in with it’s visual beauty, nice performances, and high stakes, it ultimately falls victim to one of the most unsatisfying endings you’ll see.
The film takes place in 1845 as the Tetherow, Gately, and White families follow the lead of Stephen Meek, a shaggy and rugged mountain man hired to guide them over the Cascade Mountains. He claims to know a shortcut but as the trip grows longer and the water starts running out, the families begin to question Meek. After running across an Indian and uncertain of his motives, they capture him much to the dismay of Meek who would rather just kill him. Eventually they are faced with a dilemma. Do they continue to follow Meek who by all indications seems lost or do the follow the Indian who they can’t communicate with but hopes can lead them to some much needed water?
“Meek’s Cutoff” is an incredibly slow developing picture that is sure to turn off some people. It does require a good deal of patience but it wasn’t long until I was thoroughly involved in the story. Reichardt does an incredible job giving the story an authentic look and feel and you really feel as if you are right there with them. The cinematography is wonderful and there some truly beautiful shots in the film. There are also some solid performances particularly from Michelle Williams, Will Patton, and Paul Greenwood who completely loses himself in the Meek character.
“Meek’s Cutoff” flirts with greatness but ends up falling short mainly due to an ending that left me feeling frustrated and shortchanged. Now I have no problem with ambiguity, leaving things open for interpretation, or allowing the audience to come up with their own conclusions. But this ending is terribly abrupt and features nothing that would cause me to come to my own conclusion about anything. To be honest, it felt unfinished and I couldn’t help but feel letdown.
It’s tough to watch a picture that does so many things right but fails to finish. It’s easy to talk about what all Reichardt accomplishes in her film. It’s a brilliant and arresting movie that had me sold right up to the very end. This one glaring black eye took so much away from my experience with the film. I understand this was a creative decision and many people have been satisfied with it. But for me, not only did “Meek’s Cutoff” not offer any real conclusion, but it gave me nothing to build mine upon. It felt a little cheap and lazy and ultimately made a potentially great film just a good film.