Monday, April 25, 2011

SFIFF: Meek's Cutoff, A Small But Complicated Tale

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

For a long time, I was convinced I didn't like Westerns. This was based on watching, and being bored silly by, a lot of John Wayne movies, and some other lesser entries in the genre. Meanwhile, I grew up loving the "Little House on the Prairie" books, and it wasn't until recently that I realized the "Little House" books are, essentially, just a female version of a Western.

Enter "Meek's Cutoff," a Western that falls closer into "Little House" territory than it does, say, "Stage Coach." It tells the story of three families traveling through the Oregon trail via covered wagons in 1845. They are led by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a boastful and grizzled guide who claims to know the best way to the Oregon valley, though after days of seemingly aimless wandering, and diminishing water, his followers begin to lose trust.

If you've seen any of Kelly Reichardt's previous movies, ("Wendy and Lucy;" "Old Joy"), you should know not to expect anything resembling excitement. This movie does not attempt to mask the tediousness of cross-country wagon training. There's walking....a lot of walking. And I am pretty sure the ever present squeak of one wagon wheel will haunt my dreams for years to come. But Michelle Williams and her fellow female cast do an excellent job of portraying the drudgery of pioneer life, while also illustrating the feminist truth that both men and women had hard jobs to do on the American frontier. Only women had to do those jobs wearing corsets and blinding bonnets.

"Meek's Cutoff" isn't for everyone. If you prefer your Westerns have clearly delineated good guys and bad guys, action packed shoot-outs, and stereotypical happy endings, this is not the movie for you. But if you like covered wagons, women in bonnets and calico dresses, and small but complicated tales of the American West, check it out.

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