Meek's Cutoff

Movie review by
Jeffrey M. Anderson, Common Sense Media
Meek's Cutoff Movie Poster Image
Lyrical Western is OK for kids ... if they're interested.
  • PG
  • 2011
  • 104 minutes

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

The movie's overall theme is that nothing and nobody can be truly known or understood. For every idea posited in the film, there is an equal and opposite one. For every character who has hope, another is more pessimistic. The movie introduces several problems that are never solved; thus, while thoughtful audience members will be intrigued, most viewers will be left feeling fairly negatively about the film's intentions.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Despite the movie's overall downbeat mood and themes, it has one very admirable character, Emily Tetherow -- a tough, practical woman. She can handle a rifle, and she can stand up to any man around; in fact, she's often one or two jumps ahead of anyone else with her logic and her efforts to prevent violence.

Violence

The members of the wagon train come across a Native American; a character kicks him in the head (off screen), and some blood is seen dripping. Also some talk about whether or not to kill the Native American, as well as other violent tales told in dialogue.

Sex
Language

One use of the "N" word, as well as "son of a bitch."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

An adult character is seen smoking a pipe on more than one occasion (appropriate for the era).

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that although this intelligent, poetic, lyrical Western is rated PG, its slow pace and unstructured nature aren't likely to appeal to kids. The film picks up and leaves off at seemingly random points, and it lacks anything like a traditional plot arc or story. But the language is minimal (including one use of the "N" word and one "son of a bitch"), as is the violence (the worst incident takes place off screen). Still, the movie is mostly about moods and ideas -- about searching but not necessarily finding. Even if kids are already cowboy fans, this is going to be a tough sell.

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What's the story?

In 1845, three families drive their wagon train toward California to settle and seek their fortunes. They have a hired guide, Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who tells a good story but sometimes doesn't seem to know where he's going. One of the women, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), seems to be tougher, smarter, and more practical than anyone else, and her wisdom often points the way. As the story begins, the travelers gather fresh water at a creek, but their supplies begin to dwindle quickly. At one point, a lone Native American turns up; the cowboys capture him, hoping that he can lead them to water. But Meek insists that this is a trap that will lead to an attack. Will the thirsty travelers make it through?

Is it any good?

The movie gives thoughtful viewers plenty to ponder, and plenty of situations in the story have two right answers, but no definitive one. This is probably Reichardt's biggest movie, with her brightest cast yet, and she gets some fine performances with her intelligent dialogue. The scenery is exquisite, even as it's harsh. It's not the witty, violent, suspenseful Western that True Grit was, but it's a small, pointed poem and very much worth the trouble.

Kelly Reichardt is definitely a director focused on mood rather than plot. Her movie Old Joy (2006) was about two friends who go on a camping trip, while Wendy and Lucy (2008) was about a young woman searching for her lost dog. Both movies have many long stretches in which seemingly "nothing" happens, and that's also the case with MEEK'S CUTOFF. The travelers keep moving, and they keep searching for water, but the ultimate point of the movie isn't about finding water -- it's about the different sides of any story and how nothing is fixed or definite.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about what the movie's abrupt ending might mean. Does it matter that the major problem is left unsolved? Do you have hope that it will be solved soon, or never?

  • In the fight over the Native American, who is right?

  • Who do you think this movie is intended to appeal to? Does it succeed?

  • Is this Old West a violent place? Even if there's very little fighting or blood, is there violence in the movie?

Movie details

Themes & Topics

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