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Meek's Cutoff Review: Oh, I Dare You to Call Me Anti-Intellectual

By Dustin Rowles | Film | May 24, 2011 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | May 24, 2011 |

Let’s pretend for the sake of this review that you’ve just finished painting your dining room wall. Let’s say: Yellow, because that’s the color of anxiety. And after you’ve washed off your brushes, you decide to pop some popcorn, pour yourself a cold beverage, and sit — probably in an uncomfortable chair, because the indie theaters where Meek’s Cutoff is screening are typically shabby, second-rate venues, and we want to keep this analogy consistent. You’ve taken your seat, you’ve turned off your phone, and you’ve embarked on the task ahead of you: To watch the paint dry.

The first half hour is a slow, lethargic process, one that threatens to lull you to sleep, but the paint is drying as it should: Costively, as though it resents you for willing it to dry at a faster pace than paint is intended to dry.

After 40 minutes you realize: The paint is no longer drying. Your dining room is humid, and the paint is beginning to perspire, endangering the livelihood of your newly painted wall. You take a fan out of the attic, and you bring it down and put it in the window opposite the wall where the paint is drying. You leave the window open because otherwise the paint fumes kill you. With the fan in place and blowing, the paint begins to dry again.

But there’s also a thunderstorm outside brewing, and at any moment, the rain could fall and the fan could spit onto your newly painted wall, ruining it. And so you wait. And you wait. And you wait. You stare intently at the wall, biting your nails out of anxious boredom, and you continue to wait for the paint to dry so that you can remove the fan and close the window before the thunderstorm arrives. And you wait. And you wait. Will the the paint dry. Will the wall be ruined? And you wait … and you wait.

And then your husband comes home and you go out to dinner.

Now you know what it’s like to watch Meek’s Cutoff. I’m not saying it’s not a good film, because it is. I’m also not saying I wasn’t impressed with it, because I was. It was somehow engrossing enough to keep me seated, raptly watching paint dry for over an hour and a half. I’m just saying: The experiences are not that dissimilar, and I’m barely being facetious.

Meek’s Cutoff follows a group of settlers in 1845 walking through the Oregon Desert. It’s hot. They’re running out of water. They need to find water. They’re hungry. They’re thirsty. They walk. Sometimes, they stop to talk about the need to find water. And then they walk some more. After a few days of walking, they come upon a Native American. The Native American can’t speak English. One man among the settlers, Meek (an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood) wants to kill the Native American because Meek has a very long, bushy beard, and men with really long bushy beards are fearful, ignorant people. Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), on the other hand, would prefer to keep the Native American alive in the hopes that he can lead them to water, because people who look like Michelle Williams are kind and trusting people, even when they’re covered in dirt. The kind and trusting people slightly outnumber the fearful ones among the settlers, so they decide to take the Native American. Then they walk, and they walk, unsure of whether the Native American is steering them toward water or to an ambush. Will they be scalped? Will they starve to death? Is there water ahead?

And then your husband comes home and you go out to dinner.

There’s plenty to appreciate about Meek’s Cutoff — the spare, authentic 1840’s setting, the minimalist storytelling, the divisions that spring forth between those that fear and those that trust, echoing similar cultural and political divisions today — but there’s very little to enjoy about the movie. Like previous Kelly Reichardt films (Wendy and Lucy, guh), it’s too deliberately, obstinately slow to be in any way entertaining. It’s the kind of movie that dares you to say you don’t like it so that it can call you anti-intellectual. It’s the very sort of film that many critics will rave about, and the same sort of film that often makes me wonder Really? What did you love about it? The walking? Or the walking? Or maybe it was the walking? Because my favorite part was the dinner I had afterwards; I felt like I earned it.