Movie Review Battle Over Meek’s Cutoff – Day 10 FFF 2011

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LanceAround and Number One Son Square Off in a Movie Review Battle Royale

Incredible Scenery And Great Filming Technique Help A Very Weak Story

LanceAround Says:  Beautiful…but…

This movie is nothing to write home about. It tells the simple tale of an old western wagon train crossing the midwest. Told in a very slow-to-develop, highly artistic way, it revolves around the character, Meek, who has agreed to guide a small band of homesteaders traveling west.

Along the way, they meet up with an ancient Native American, whom they can’t understand. Tensions run high as some of them want to kill the “savage” while others believe he just needs their patience and understanding.

What makes this movie beautiful, however, is the cinematography, directing, costumes, props and the great outdoors. If you are going to watch this movie, you have to see it on the big screen.

As the movie slowly plods along, I was so taken by the photography I paid little attention to anything else. Not that there was much to pay attention to. The story unfolded very slowly encompassed by scenes of long silences, watchful stillness and non-verbal expression. It’s as if the scenery was the main character in the movie and the actors and props merely a vehicle to portray the desolate expanse of the old midwest.

The ending, or lack thereof, felt cheap and manipulative. During the movie, I was going back and forth in my mind wondering whether or not it was worth the journey. When it finally ended–abruptly– it made it easy for me to not recommend this movie.

UNLESS, you want a very realistic portrait of what it might have been like to strike out west during our country’s expansion. That–and that alone–is the gem in the rough that this film offers.

Number One Son Replies:

 screenshot from oregon trail for mac. It says "You have found some wild fruit", "Beth has a broken leg", and "Joey was bitten by a snake"

I liked this movie, actually, and like it more the more I think about it. If I was a bit disappointed, it’s only because the trailer and poster are so spectacular.

This is a hypnotically-slow not-much-happens kind of film. It doesn’t tell a story so much as give you an experience. It lets you hang out with a group of travelers for a while – they’re lost and running out of water, and they’re moving across a surreal desert landscape with squeaky-wheeled wagons, and they’re following an Indian they’ve kidnapped and beaten – an Indian who might be taking them to water or might be leading them to an ambush.

Movies don’t always have to be story-driven. Sometimes I’ll go on hours-long hikes: Nothing happens on these hikes – I usually don’t wind up fighting dragons or anything – but they’re still worthwhile. Sometimes I’ll go to an art museum and look at paintings. A painting doesn’t tell a traditional story with a beginning, middle and end. So I don’t mean it as a criticism when I say that this movie feels like a short film that’s been stretched out to feature length.

In fact a lot of movies these days have too much story. The Dark Knight is good, but it feels like Nolan and co. tried to squeeze as much story  into as little time as possible. In the span of a few minutes: 1) The Joker spends, like, a minute talking with a certain someone in the hospital, and that’s all it takes to turn that someone evil. 2) Bruce performs a quick heroic stunt to save Mr. Reece. 3) the hospital is evacuated. 4) the Joker blows up the hospital. 5) the Joker has a bunch of people trapped on two boats rigged with explosives.

The Dark Knight is exhausting.

Anyway.

Westerns tend to be shot in ultra-wide screen, but director Kelly Reichardt is a maverick, so she decided to pull a Kubrick and shoot the movie in 4:3. Good choice? Not sure, but I admire her chutzpah. She’s trying, I think, to make the wide-open desert feel claustrophobic. Also, I noticed the film rarely let’s you see the horizon line, resulting in landscapes that feel extra-weird and disorienting.

(It’s interesting to see the filmmakers try and mesh the wide-open landscape and the tall frame. Sometimes they’ll do this thing where somebody will be moving on a ridge at the top of the frame, and the rest of the group will be moving along the bottom.)

(The cinematographer: an up-and-comer by the name of Chris Blauvelt.)

The film was uncomfortably dark and murky – especially during  night scenes. And sometimes the dialog was murky and impossible to hear. I didn’t like that. But a true movie reviewer must consider all the possibilities and so I must add: It’s possible that this was the theatre’s fault and not the movie’s.

It’s interesting that the nameless prisoner the whites have captured mostly seems…well, he seems bored. If it were me, I’d make the character intense. But he acts like he’s waiting in line at the supermarket or something. Interesting choice.

The best thing about the movie is Bruce Greenwood: 

 He is unrecognizable as Stephen Meek. When I looked him up on imdb, I was like, “wait, Meek was played by him? The guy who played Captain Pike (and the president in National Treasure)?” Greenwood’s Meek is just so cool, and has such an awesome voice. It’s a big disappointment when Meek turns out to be a douchebag (albeit a charming one.)

My favorite scene is when Meek talks about slaughtering a group of Indians for fun. He says something like: I don’t condone what I done, it’s not right playing with people’s lives like that. But – he explains – he’s able to know he done wrong because he’s a Christian, and when an Indian does something wrong the Indian’s not capable of realizing it.

Horrifying! Man, I’m getting goosebumps just thinking about that.

The film gives us this harsh view of past racism, but, I feel like, maybe, the filmmakers underestimate how sexist everyone used to be. Not that there isn’t any sexism on display, but….

Well, my knowledge of history is embarrassing, and even if it wasn’t, how much can history books really tell you about how people really behaved – especially in life-or-death situations? So maybe I’m wrong – maybe the old west wasn’t quite as horrifyingly misogynist as I think. But I feel like, in real life, a young woman just wouldn’t be able to constantly, angrily, tell off Meek. In real life, if she said anything at all, she would have said it carefully and respectfully. And, if she didn’t, Meek would have calmly walked over and started hitting her.

So, does the group make it to water? Or do they drop dead of dehydration? Or do they run into a group of Indians who proceed to slaughter them? (And if that last one happens – how much sympathy should we really have, considering?) I’m not going to give away the ending (or at least I’ll try not to. Perhaps LanceAround and I have already said too much.) I will say the ending ain’t gonna make you feel warm-and-fuzzy.  The audience actually let out a collective “aww!” Not, “aww, what a cute puppy!” but “aww, that did not just happen!” I liked the ending, but you may feel different. As you know LanceAround thought it was horrible. But I reckon you could say it was a bold way to let the audience feel how horrible the group’s situation really was.

You know, it’s interesting that LanceAround said  “you have to see it on the big screen.” While we were watching it I was wishing I was seeing it at home, on my beautiful 640 pixel-wide 4:3 RCA TV with built-in DVD player and VCR. Mostly because we were sitting in the front row at the theatre and it was too hot. Also there was the problematic picture/sound, but again that might be the film’s fault or it might be the theater’s. Or maybe those new-fangled digital projectors are to blame.

Hmm. I was going to end my review there, but then I thought, wait, am I going easy on this movie because I instinctively want to counterbalance LanceAround’s review? I think maybe I am.  So let me add some weights and try to counter my counterbalance:

I liked the movie but I’m not in love. I really want to see it again – which is more than I can say for most films I see.  But it’s no Lost in Translation, to pick another quasi-plotless art-movie. I don’t think it was as good as The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, either. (That one’s a kind-of similar movie directed-and-starring Tommy Lee Jones about a cowboy dragging a prisoner and a dead body across Mexico.)

I said above that the movie didn’t live up the trailer: The trailer makes it seem like a  tense and intense experience, and it isn’t. It’s not that kind of film. Now that I have different expectations, maybe the next time I watch it I will enjoy it more. I can see this movie growing on me.  Nevertheless, I was a little disappointed. I kept thinking that, at some point, the group is going to drink their last drop of water, and be like  “Oh God! What now?” But towards the end of the film they still have several barrels of water left!  The trailer has wall-to-wall There Will Be Blood-style tension music, but the movie hardly has any music. And, while the group was scared that they might be attacked, it was hard for me to feel the same way. As the movie went on, the group keeps not getting bombarded by flying arrows and not hearing ominous sounds in the distance.

Meek keeps saying they’re in “hell”, but, to me, it felt more like they were in purgatory.

P.S. When I wrote that, I was thinking purgatory was sucky, but not horrifying, and kind-of equivalent to a long wait at the doctor’s office. But looking it up, it turns out they do torture you there, in order to purge your soul so you can get into heaven. Interesting!

P.P.S. Am I contradicting myself by saying, on the one hand, it’s okay that not very much happened, and on the other hand, this movie is maybe not as intense as I’d like? I don’t think so. I think you can have a tense, suspenseful, dripping-with-danger kind of movie where not a lot happens.

[Editor’s Note:  So which is it?: An artistic movie that grows on you or a boring, manipulative cheat? Have you seen the movie? If so, drop us a comment and let us know your thoughts: Was LanceAround’s review more accurate or did Number One Son get it right. Inquiring minds want to know!]

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