Meek’s Cutoff


How Wong Kar Wai would shoot a Western.

How Wong Kar Wai would shoot a Western.

(2010) Western (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux. Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Travelling from East to West in the mid-19th Century wasn’t something undertaken lightly. Prior to the establishment of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the only ways to get from the east to the west was by ship around Cape Horn in South America all the way back up to San Francisco; it was a perilous journey in which ships frequently were wrecked on the treacherous passageway.

There was also the overland route on the Oregon Trail which was just as arduous and nearly as lethal. Settlers would pack up what provisions and goods as they could carry in their wagons (not all of which were Conestogas), hitched up their oxen and set off hoping their guide knew where he was going, which wasn’t always the case.

Guide Stephen Meek (Greenwood) sure talked a good game – to hear him tell it, no man alive knew the Oregon Trail as well – but this two week journey has stretched into five with still no end in sight. Supplies are getting dangerously low and there has been no water in the drought-stricken west. There are only three families on this wagon train; Emily (Williams) and Soloman Tetherow (Patton), Millie (Kazan) and Thomas Gately (Dano) and Glory (Henderson), Jimmy (Nelson) and William White (Huff). The women are skeptical of their guide’s ability to lead them to safety. The men are dithering and unwilling to stand up to the overbearing lout.

When the men capture a Cayuse Indian (Rondeaux) who has been shadowing them, they are eager to kill the native. However the women urge that he be spared and convinced to lead them to water. For once they get their way. Still, there is a good deal of mistrust; is the man leading them to water or into a trap? And will they find their way to their destination or will they all die out there in the wilderness?

Reichardt, best known for her edgy modern drama Wendy and Lucy (which also starred Williams) tackles one of the American cinema’s most iconic genres and adds to it a uniquely feminine viewpoint (even though the script was written by her frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, a man). Clearly the strongest and staunchest of the settlers is Emily, although mores and custom of the day required her to take a back seat to her husband.

Williams, whose next role would net her an Oscar nomination, is wonderful here. She gives Emily a marvelous inner strength which the pioneer women certainly must have – and did – have. Williams is careful not to turn Emily into a 21st century woman in a 19th century milieu which is what some actresses might have been tempted to do; Emily is very much a product of her time. However that doesn’t mean she didn’t have a strong personality or a will to match.

The entire cast is actually quite strong and all of them seem to be authentic to their roles. There are no jarring out-of-place anachronisms, and even better, this doesn’t feel like a bunch of modern people playing at cowboys and Indians – this feels like real settlers, unsure of what to do, completely out of their element and terrified that they’re going to die.

The vast vistas that are both barren and beautiful add to that feeling of a bunch of small people in a very large wilderness – kudos to cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt for capturing it onscreen. The result is a very intimate film on an epic scale, which is a hard feat to pull off.

However be warned that the pace is slow, maybe too slow. A lot of time is spent showing the settlers doing their day-to-day activities – grinding coffee, gathering wood, repairing wheels and so on, to the extent that you might feel like you’re sitting in a classroom. In fact, high school history teachers looking to give their students an idea of life on the Oregon Trail (and others like it) might want to arrange a screening of the movie for their classroom – it’s that informative.

The story progresses organically but slowly and much is left to interpretation. Audiences used to being led from point A to point Z with all the answers pointed out to them as they go along might find this frustrating. Still, it is one of the better Westerns to come along in the 21st century and those who love the genre will find much here to love – but traditionalists might find little here to love as well.

WHY RENT THIS: A very different Western. Strong performances throughout the cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Moves at a very contemplative pace. Framework is very bare-bones which may ask too much from audiences used to being spoonfed.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence and a little bit of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Meek Cutoff follows Bear Creek to the Deschutes River near Bend, Oregon.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $977,772 on a $2M production budget; it certainly didn’t make money.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: September Dawn

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Perfect Storm

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The Grey


The Grey

Liam Neeson will know better than to fly economy next time.

(2012) Action Thriller (Open Road) Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Joe Anderson, James Badge Dale, Nonso Anozie, Ben Hernandez Bray, Anne Openshaw, Peter Girges, Jacob Blair, Lani Gelera, Larissa Stadnichuk. Directed by Joe Carnahan

 

In the deep heart of the North, it is always cold, a block of unforgiving ice that will freeze all hope. Only the strong may roam freely there and even those know the harsh reality of life – that as strongas you are, there is always something stronger and more fierce.

John Ottway (Neeson) has that same cold place in his own heart. He is a contractor at an Alaskan oil pumping station, working with roughnecks in the middle of nowhere, far away from civilization. He is on the security detail, making sure that the men are protected from grey wolves and other Arctic predators. However, there is a predator inside him, one that has eaten him alive. His wife (Openshaw) has left him to his loneliness and that burden is one he can no longer carry.

He intends to kill himself, takes his high-powered rifle and puts it in his mouth, ready to pull the trigger. Instead, he heads back to his barracks and waits for his contract to be up so he can go home with the other roughnecks who have worked their contract.

They board a small plane, ready to fly to Anchorage and from there to points beyond but the plane never makes it there. It crashes in the wilderness, leaving a handful of survivors. The weather is freezing, with a blizzard making visibility nearly zero. There are many dead and dying, like Lewenden (Dale) who is frightened but eased into the abyss by Ottway.

It becomes clear they aren’t alone in the wilderness when Ottway spots one of the stewardesses whimpering in the underbrush. He goes to rescue her and realizes that she was being eaten by a wolf. Ottway believes that they’ve had the unfortunate luck to crash in the midst of the territory of the wolves who take exception to the intrusion.

Things get worse when Hernandez (Bray) who’s on watch is killed and partially eaten by a wolf. Knowing that they are exposed in the wreck with little means of defending themselves, Ottway believes their best chance is to head south and hopefully exit the territory of the predators. He also knows that nobody will be looking for them terribly hard.

As the men make their way through the unforgiving wilderness, they come to terms with their impending mortality, the existence (or non) of God, and the significance of their lives. As they fall to the cold, the terrain and to the wolves, soon it becomes clear that the cold heart of the North is a grey wasteland of death and redemption.

Carnahan, whose body of work includes Smokin’ Aces, does some of the best work of his career. This is not your ordinary wilderness survival film; these are no cardboard cutout characters with heroes and villains vying for control in the elements. These are hard men, worn down by hard lives whose tough fronts begin to crumble when faced with horrible death. There is an awful lot of that, from wolf attacks to falls to freezing to death.

Neeson has made a career transformation from an Oscar-caliber dramatic actor to an action star. Pushing 60, the rugged Neeson has become king of the beginning of the year action flicks, with success in both Taken and Unknown coming in the first two months of their respective years. As with those films, he lends The Grey gravitas, bringing the inner turmoil of John Ottway to the surface but only in a subtle way, one that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the film or ever ring false 

Carnahan also cast his film with mostly character actors who are largely not well known to the general public, although some might recognize Mulroney from My Best Friend’s Wedding – he is virtually unrecognizable here. Grillo and Roberts also deliver strong performances.

Part of the allure of The Grey is the cinematography. Masanobu Takayanagi brings the snow-covered landscape of British Columbia (standing in for Alaska) a kind of stark but majestic beauty. The cold is almost palpable through his fine work.

While there are some gruesome scenes of wolf attacks and of human remains, both from the plane crash and the attacks, the action here is almost more internal than external (not that the latter is lacking in any way shape or form). This is about the journey and not so much the destination. The movie is based on the short story “Ghost Walker” by Ian Mackenzie Jeffers (who also wrote the first draft of the script) and if the movie’s Nietzschean themes are any indication, it might be worth checking out.  

The movie has been getting a fair amount of critical acclaim with a lot of folks surprised at how good it is. For my part, Carnahan has done some good work and has exceeded expectations here. Nobody should be surprised that Neeson delivers such a fine performance – while not Oscar worthy perhaps, it certainly sets the bar high for the rest of the year.

REASONS TO GO: A raw, unadulterated survival film. Neeson again gives a strong performance.

REASONS TO STAY: May be a bit too Nietzsche for some.  

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the images of the wolf attacks and their aftermath are awfully disturbing, and there’s plenty of bad language for all.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carnahan, Neeson and producers Tony and Ridley Scott previously worked together on The A-Team.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100. The reviews are solidly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Way Back

SNOW LOVERS: There is plenty of it on the ground and falling from the sky. This is as cold-looking a movie as you’re ever likely to see.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Garden