If Meek’s Cutoff is close at all to portraying the life of those braving the conditions of the Oregon Trail in 1845 then it was incredibly brutal and, at the same time, a little boring to observe. Of course, no one was observing it. That’s what those of us in this century get to do – marvel at the courage of those who brave the barren land on little more than some livestock, fragile wooden wagons, and limited supplies while also wondering how director Kelly Reichardt managed to make even the tensest moments rather mundane.
This drama follows a group of people in the mid-1800’s led by a guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who gets them off the Oregon Trail. The tension between the conditions, the settlers and their guide is hard to miss. Beautiful scenes of desolate lands fill the screen as these people walk alongside their belongings in relatively small wagons pulled by oxen. In the midst of this struggle are few words and little music or sound other than those generated by nature and the movement of the group. When words are spoken they are often faint or grunted out by Meek, whose beard seems to serve as a sort of force field for clear speech.
Along the way the group finds a Native American who they capture. Meek makes it clear he’s not fond of the idea of having this guy around. He’d just as well finish him off. The leader of the group disagrees and gets the final word. The Native American will help them find their way out of the mess Meek appears to have gotten them into. What seems like a setup for an interesting twist on the journey turns into not much more than some further heated debates between Meek and the others. The debates never happen in order to preach about tolerance nor do they heighten the drama much. Much like everything else in the movie, the debates are what they are. They happen and the group continues on.
I don’t expect a movie that is true to its realistic tone to ever raise the stakes through melodrama. Meek’s Cutoff portrays events as matter of fact and in that way it holds interest, capturing a period of history that feels authentic. Authenticity doesn’t necessarily translate to engaging and that is where the film falls short of fully capturing the story it aims to tell.