That Was a Dumb Movie: Meek’s Cutoff

I’m not really into reviewing films since there are plenty of reviewers out there, but every now and then I see a film that is so lame, or so boring that I can’t even believe it exists. And so I introduce my new series, “That Was a Dumb Movie”. Basically in this series I will criticize the film, but I will also try to discover why the film was as least supposed to be good.

A few days ago I saw the film ”Meek’s Cutoff”. It is exactly that kind of boring film, that at the end of it I said aloud, “That was so boring, nothing even happened.” I want to first explain why I watched it, because ordinarily I might see the cover art for a film like this and know right away that I wasn’t interested. Basically, I heard about the film on NPR, and something about the way the hosts discussed the film made me interested in seeing it. I don’t remember exactly what they said, but the person commenting on the film had said, “It’s a film kind of like ”The Tree of Life” you either love it, or you hate it.” When the commentator said that, he meant literally, “You will either love it, or hate it, and there is really no middle ground.” But I interpreted his comment as, “If you are the type of person that loved ”The Tree of Life”, you will love ”Meek’s Cutoff”.” I loved [[blog:the-tree-of-life The Tree of Life]], so I wrote down the name of the film on a piece of paper with the intent of eventually getting to it. Of course I can’t blame the commentator for my misunderstanding of what he meant, and my subsequent watching of the film, that’s all on me, but what’s done is done, and I saw the film.

I don’t really like Westerns to begin with. It’s just not my genre. So it’s not really my place to comment on them, but I did enjoy the TV series ”Brisco County Junior”. And while that may not be the typical Western, since it features science fiction elements, I think that it captures the essence of why people do like Westerns: Guns a-blazing action, and tough-as-nails cowboys. I may be wrong, but I think that’s what people want out of a Western. That’s why, even though I don’t like Westerns I feel alright making some criticisms of ”Meek’s Cutoff”, because it is not a traditional Western, it is a realistic Western. Meaning that it is about things that could actually happen. There are no gun’s a-blazing, with cowboys killing each other right away.

While the filmmakers might not admit this, ”Meek’s Cutoff” was a film inspired by the old Applie IIe video game ”Oregon Trail”. Apparently the Oregon Trail exists in real life, but my knowledge of it comes from the video game. If you went to grade school in the 80s or 90s you’ve probably heard of it. Heck, there are probably updated versions available. In the game, you take a wagon train from the east coast and across America to Oregon. While on the trail you do such things as go hunting, cross rivers, see landmarks, hire Indians to help you, party members get sick, your wagons get broken, et cetera. That’s also what happens in ”Meek’s Cutoff”.

The film opens with the wagon train crossing a river. In the game there are several ways to cross a river. You can ford the river, caulk the wagon and float it across, ferry it, hire an Indian to help you cross the river, or wait a few days to see if the water level lowers. The characters in ”Meek’s Cutoff” chose the option to ford the river. The water level was low enough that they did this just fine. Then basically a lot of walking around occurred, consistent with the game.

We soon learn that the party was being lead by a guide named Stephen Meek, and no one really seems to think he’s competent, so I don’t know why they hired the guy to begin with. Being that if you listen to this guy talk for thirty seconds you got to know he’s some kind of dunce. The characters all seem to believe that they are lost, all except Meek, that is, who claims he knows exactly where they are. Then proceeds to tell an exaggerated story about how a guy he knew wrestled a bear. Later on their journey they encounter an Indian, and since they don’t really think Meek knows what he’s doing, and they need water, they decide to follow the Indian around hoping that he gets thirsty and decides to find some water. Of course they can’t speak his language and he can’t speak theirs so they have no way of telling him this, so he’s probably wondering why these guys are following him.

Meanwhile some video game inspired events happen, a wagon breaks and a guy gets sick. Then the film ends with them not finding any water, and Meek admits that he was the idiot that all the other characters already thought he was. And of course the film has to have a classic Western ending with a lone wanderer walking off into the sunset, so the Indian decided to walk off towards the sun. Presumably everybody died a few days later. (Except I think the film was based on a historical event where not everybody died, so I don’t really know for sure.)

I don’t really know where to begin with my criticism of that plot. It actually sounds alright summed up like that. I mean it’s probably the best you can do with a movie inspired by a video game that had no plot, so to speak. The main problem, I guess was the context in which the material was presented. Mostly it was just people walking around, a lot. Every now and then someone complained about being lost. And, of course, whenever the guy, Meek, opened his mouth, you wonder how the other characters could have been so dumb as to hire him in the first place, especially when they actually seem kind of competent themselves.

Basically the biggest criticism I have, and this isn’t a very thoughtful criticism, but it’s really all I can think of, is that the film is boring. I mean it is literally about people walking around. The plot with the Indian made it only slightly less boring than if we had actually just watched them walk around.

To illustrate why it is boring, let me explain some of the scenes in the movie, the scenes with the most action. The first “action” incident is when one of the characters first encounters the Indian. She gets scared runs back to the wagon and fires of a couple of shots. That actually sounds like a decent amount of action, right? Well, this is all filmed in real time. She runs back to the wagon which is a good two or three hundred yards away, this alone takes about thirty seconds, then she fumbles around the wagon for another thirty seconds looking for a rifle, then fires a warning shot into the air, then takes about two minutes to reload the rifle and fires of the second warning shot. All in all it was about three minutes long. And while it was supposed to convey the sense of panic that this character was feeling, it took so long that any such feeling was lost.

Another “action” incident involved the a wagon breaking. Basically what happened was that the party needed to lower their wagons down a steep hill so they tied some rope to them and lowered the wagons down the hill. On the third and last wagon the rope broke and the wagon was destroyed. Like the rifle scene, this really drags on. You watch two wagons get lowered ”in real time” just as one would get lowered in real life, slowly. I mean you are literally watching the boring action of a wagon being lowered for twenty minutes. Like the rifle scene there is supposed to be some suspense. I mean you figure there is at least a 50% chance the rope will break. They crossed the river at the beginning of the movie just fine, so you know that not everything that the characters do will be a disaster, but you also know that further into a film there is usually additional conflict so you think it might break, but then the film has been so uneventful that you think maybe it won’t break. Then of course, the rope breaks on the third wagon so it goes down the hill quite a bit faster, but basically you already spent forever watching the first two wagons get lowered, that it’s kind of a relief that you don’t have to watch the third one. So basically you have no sympathy for the characters.

I think that is really what was wrong with the film. You just had no sympathy for these characters. I mean how could you? They were dumb enough to hire this Meek guy. Maybe you weren’t supposed to sympathize with them, maybe you were supposed to sympathize with the Indian, but that was difficult in and of itself because you couldn’t understand what he was saying, so for all you knew he did know that they were trying to find water, but was intentionally leading them the wrong way. Maybe the only way to truly appreciate the film is to do some research on the side and figure out what the Indian was actually talking about. But this isn’t literature. It’s a film. You should be able to watch it for what it is.

The guy on NPR was right. You will either love it or hate it. My guess is that if you bother to see the film you will hate it. I also wonder if the critics that acclaim it are only saying it is good because they want to look sophisticated. Then again, I did like ”The Tree of Life” and many have argued that it was boring as well. Of course the difference between the two films, I believe, is that ”The Tree of Life” is visually stimulating as well as emotionally, whereas ”Meek’s Cutoff” is probably supposed to be mentally stimulating, which just isn’t my thing when it comes to film.