By Jonathan Decker (Family therapist, film critic)
An arduous, mind-numbing film in which the protagonists may die of thirst and the audience may die of boredom, Meek's Cutoff has been lauded as many things: a biting political allegory, an intelligent reflection on faith, an examination of the natures of trust and leadership, and a commentary on America. I caught traces of these things, it's true, but that's all subtext and subtext doesn't matter if the vessel it's delivered in (i.e. the story itself) is dull, hopelessly bleak, and dramatically unsatisfying. Some will argue that the film is art, not entertainment, and perhaps if it hadn't been marketed as some kind of Western-survival thriller I could have approached it from a different mindset.
The film follows a group of Oregon pioneers, lost and dehydrated, torn between their hired guide and a captive Native American who could lead them to water or to their deaths. The film is relentlessly pessimistic about human nature, painting “good” people as naive and all others as incompetent or malignant. It is sluggishly-paced, allowing shots to hold for far too long. This technique is effective in recreating the monotony of pioneer life, which would have been fine for 20 minutes, but not for the entire running time of 100. The musical score is spare and repetitive. Still, there are some fascinating glimpses into daily living on the plains, some nice attention to period detail, and the performances by Michelle Williams (Dawson's Creek), Will Patton (Remember the Titans), and Paul Dano (Cowboys and Aliens) are quite good. Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek) doesn't fare as well; though he is virtually unrecognizable as the titular “Meek,” he comes across as a broad caricature, in contrast with the realism the other actors strive for. With an uninvolving story and a message devoid of hope, Meek's Cutoff isn't worth a look.
CONTENT OVERVIEW: Meek's Cutoff is rated PG. It contains some mild language, threats of violence, and a moment with one character kicking another in the face.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: Do not allow yourself to be led by foolish guides. Don't follow anyone blindly, but think for yourself and make your own decisions.
Have more fun in the desert! Try the Matthew McConaughey action flick Sahara, with Steve Zahn and Penelope Cruz, instead of Meek's Cutoff.