Here's the official movie trailer:
The cinematography of Meek's Cutoff is dangerously beautiful. The plot is just plain dangerous.
When I first learned that there was going to be a special showing of this movie at the Historic Elsinore Theater in Salem, I jumped right on board. I love the American West, and since I'm taking a class on the literature of the American West this semester, this movie sounded intriguing. I knew I wasn't going to see a fairytale-type story, but I think I was still ill-prepared for just how unique and unsettling this movie really was.
First and foremost I believe this movie was meant to be art. That is to say, artistic license is taken and the main focus is on the picture being portrayed--the setting, the feel of the past, the universal themes--and not on the story being told.
The movie was filmed near Burns in eastern Oregon, and the setting is absolutely stunning. The vast emptiness, the sounds of rushing water, the silhouette of a wagon against the vivid sunset...all of these are shown fully and wonderfully in the movie. And the dangers that go along with such a wilderness are shown in the weary group--lost, dirty, and most of all, thirsty. If you're looking for a movie that will show you a glimpse of the pioneer's life on the Oregon Trail, this movie does a fantastic job.
On the other hand, while there are some neat historical details included in the film, it's not completely historically accurate. For example, from what I've gathered (although I confess I'm not an expert on the story of Meek's cutoff by any means), the actual group was much, much bigger than just a few wagon trains. And the issue with the lone Native American seemed to be included for the purpose of conveying some sort of message through the film (this was part of what someone else who saw the movie discussed with me).
This movie is not meant to "entertain." It doesn't really offer any sort of pleasure, except for aesthetic pleasure, and the audience seemed to need relief from the pressure and depression so much that there was laughter at even the subtlest hint of humor, even if the circumstances in the movie were tragic.
The scenes are extended far longer than in most movies, and there isn't really a traditional plot. One of the main problems I had with the movie was the overall unsatisfied feeling I had when it was over. There was an article on The Writers Alley blog a while back that talked about the "trust issue" involved when a reader (in this case, viewer) becomes invested in a story.
Yes, it's hard not to applaud a creative approach to a story--it takes confidence and courage to take risks when making a movie, writing a novel, etc.
However, when viewers are taken on this journey, they want to know that it was worth it. And usually that is best seen by looking at the beginning and the end. But Meek's Cutoff has no beginning or end. The viewer is dropped into the past with no background or explanation, and then brought to a place where there seems to be more questions than answers. The "cutoff"--the place where the movie ended--really startled both me and the person I was watching the movie with, and I think it startled the whole audience in general. It was abrupt, to say the least.
Meek's Cutoff is bold, and I appreciate its realistic rendering of the misery of the Oregon Trail and the tenacious, persevering people who traversed it. But I felt set adrift by the plot, and I don't think the story is fully told in a way that brings satisfaction. So if you're looking for a history lesson or a good story, this movie might not be for you.