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'Meek's Cutoff' review: Masterfully taking the fun out of "The Oregon Trail"

***1/2 (out of four)

With no potential for greasy meals or “spot the license plate,” road trips aren’t particularly enjoyable in 1845 Oregon. Especially when Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who is guiding three families (including Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan) across a wagon trail, gets them lost without any sense of when they’ll find water again.

The buzz: Technically this is director Kelly Reichardt’s (the beautifully sad “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy”) first Western, but her movies always are informed by the genre’s traditionally slow journeys toward symbolic power. If you’re new to the filmmaker: She’s as patient as they come, so make sure you’ve got caffeine in your system so the tweeting of birds and whispering of wind doesn’t put you to sleep.

The verdict: No one creates desperately realistic circumstances like Reichardt, who taps into every small task crucial to her characters’ process: washing a bowl, gathering water, lifting buckets over the head to cross a river. No, “Oregon Trail” fans, nobody dies of dysentery or suffers a snakebite, but a wagon does break an axle. Reichardt normally works with fewer people on screen; this time, the quantity of characters prevents us from getting close to everyone. In long takes that show the future isn’t exactly racing to anyone who doesn’t have the basic needs for living, the movie explores faith’s fundamental principles with weary focus. “Meek’s Cutoff,” certainly a deliberate title for a story touching on fear of the unknown (at what point do the struggling give up?), is the human experience stripped to its bones.

Did you know? Meek frequently notes that hell is full of various items such as bears, Indians, mountains, but none of those is anywhere to be found nearby. Not a good sign if you need to continually assert that the place you’re in is not, in fact, eternal damnation.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Fridays at 7 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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