Readers of a certain age will surely recall countless hours spent on The Oregon Trail. The best-selling educational video game of all time was a boon for teachers who were teetering on the precipitous edge of an emotional meltdown during the Pop Rocks-and-Pepsi-fueled 1980s; when they couldn't stand to look at you anymore they'd toss you a floppy disc that you'd shove into a Volvo-sized Apple II and you'd spend the next 27 hours buying oxen and trying not to contract virtual cholera. Gameplay seemed to end only with the sweet release of death, after which your teacher, depending on his capacity for sadism, either made you do homework or start the whole thing over again. Some kids loved the game and found it fascinating, while others just wanted to go home and play Choplifter.
Writer/director Kelly Reichardt has replicated the experience with Meek's Cutoff, an existential Western that strips the genre of everything that makes it entertaining. It's technically impressive, well-acted, and impeccably produced, but its ponderous pacing and aversion to anything approaching a narrative structure make it more of an endurance test than an enjoyable cinematic experience. It will enthrall some viewers while making others wish they were dead.
Here's the plot: Three families and their completely unhelpful guide are lost on the Oregon Trail circa 1845, and they're really hot and thirsty. Life sucks and everything is hard. They find an Indian and spend a lot of time arguing over whether or not they should kill him, but ultimately decide to keep him as a pet in hopes he'll lead them to water. After an hour and 40 minutes of watching the pioneers be thirsty racists, it appears that something is perhaps about to happen, and the credits roll.
Meek's Cutoff is more of an experience than a traditional narrative—I get that. Really, I do. Reichardt, best known for her chick-walking-a-dog epic Wendy and Lucy, painstakingly recreates not just the era, but the grueling experience of living in it. We're constantly reminded of man's inferiority to nature and our dependence on even the most rudimentary forms of technology. Dialogue is often unintelligible, but we clearly hear every bird call and every creak of a wagon wheel. The film's opening cues us in to the fact that we're in for something different: a full 10 minutes pass without a single spoken word, and the silence forces the viewer to mind the details. And if there's anything Meek's Cutoff has plenty of, it's details.
Reichardt, who sent her actors to pioneer camp (like Space Camp, only without the fun) to prepare them for their roles, takes nothing for granted. She lingers on the moments that would normally be edited out of a film or never shot to begin with. When one of the pioneers has to fire two rifle shots into the air as a signal to her companions, we see the long, arduous process of loading a 19th-century rifle—twice. We watch the pioneers make bread, wash clothes, and cook. Incredibly, we even watch them sleep. It's the sort of thing critics like to call "mesmerizing," but "trance-inducing" is probably a more accurate term.
It could be an immersive experience, if only we had something to pull us in. The performances are uniformly excellent—especially Michelle Williams as a strong-willed young pioneer woman and an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood as the blowhard, temperamental guide, Stephen Meek—but the characters are so distant and unlikable that it's difficult to care what happens to them. We don't actively wish them harm, but it's hard to be bothered much when it actually befalls them.
In spite of all this, or maybe because of it, Meek's Cutoff will find an appreciative audience. It works beautifully as a living history exhibit, and will appeal to viewers who are bored and frustrated by Hollywood blockbusters. It's a stripped-down genre film that wants nothing to do with its genre, and it boasts an undeniable elegance in its hazy cinematography and stark, unrelenting realism. It's the sort of film you suspect you should appreciate, even if you don't like it and can barely sit through it. It will divide audiences; some will find it a welcome respite from summer tentpole flicks, while others will feel as if they've just been forced to read a phonebook. I commend you if you enjoy Meek's Cutoff, but I certainly won't judge you if you'd rather just wait for Green Lantern.