How Much Dialogue Is the Right Amount of Dialogue: Meek’s Cutoff & No Way Out

When days pass and I haven’t seen a movie, I feel a little crazy. This week, after mopping summer out of the house and hanging the moon for a fundraising party for this fall’s election – “Welfare-dependent victims unite!” could have been our theme – I woke up totally spent, and caught up on some viewing on TV.

First, “Meek’s Cutoff” (2010). Director Kelly Reichardt and writer Jonathan Raymond are the team that set a new standard for simple, indie film-making in the past few years. They do “mumblecore” better than “mumblecore” does, because they let the pictures tell the stories. I missed “Meek’s Cutoff,” their attempt at a western, on the big screen a few years back, but finally sucked it up and watched it in my living room. Westerns as a genre are largely about the landscapes, and belong in a real cinema, but my curiosity got the best of me.

It’s another production premise I’ve been calling for for years: We CAN do a low-budget period film if we keep the number of people (and costumes) to just a few and use just one (or try zero) locations, and that the western is actually ripe for this formula. All you need is a landscape with three people pulling pack mules, or driving a Model T – oh, and a good script!

A remarkably small wagon train – just three wagons, containing seven people – is being led by a scout named Meek through eastern Oregon territory in 1845. Some of the party, led by a woman named Emily, start doubting that Meek knows where he’s going. They discover they’re being watched by an Indian, and Meek and the patriarch chase the Indian down and capture him. It is the first chase, and the first brandishing of a gun, which are the basic building blocks of action in most westerns. In the first scene they are fording a small river, and the barrel of water on one of the wagons becomes a place where characters can congregate in twos to confide in one another. The activities they engage in are more likely to be gathering of kindling – which most cowboys presumably spent more time doing than shooting one another – or trying to overhear the men’s conversations.

The action in “Meek’s Cutoff” is the slow consensus-building that materializes around Emily, that Meek can not be trusted, as the water supply in the barrel shrinks. The one major setback is the arrival of “the savage,” whose presumed familiarity with the land makes the men figure that he will lead them to water. Dialogue is spare to say the least: a little talking that tips the scales of consensus slightly in favor of Emily or Meek, followed by long periods of trudging through the driest part of Oregon.

I loved it – hats off to Reichardt and Raymond, who also wrote her “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy” – but even I was hungry for some words when I finished it, so I found what I figured was its polar opposite in terms of its sense about how much dialogue is necessary: a 1950 social drama by Joseph Mankiewicz, called “No Way Out.” Co-written by Lesser Samuels, who was then well into his 50s, it came out the same year as Mankiewicz’s masterpiece “All About Eve” and a year before Samuels’ career hit its height with “Ace In the Hole.”

“No Way Out” is about a young, black doctor played by a 22-year-old Sidney Poitier, who just passed his medical exam, and who watches a patient die in his care at the prison ward of a hospital, while the prisoner-patient’s brother played by (of course) Richard Widmark watches. Widmark the racist vows to get revenge, race riots ensue, and Poitier takes the unusual step of turning himself in for murder. When Poitier’s wife visits his supervisor the head doctor, she tells him what he did, and the dialogue, always snappy in these noir-tinged social dramas, awkwardly covers lots of action: “But it ain’t the truth that he murdered that man.” “Of course he didn’t, and that’s what he says the autopsy will prove.” “The autopsy, so that’s it. He’s had himself arrested to force the autopsy.”

The two films are like Mama Bear and Papa Bear when it comes to how much dialogue is the right amount of dialogue. The one is too hot, and the other too cold, at least for most of my acquaintances. Except for a few editors and film omnivores I know, I wouldn’t drag anyone to either movie. But before we chalk up the glaring overuse of dialogue in “No Way Out” to the old-timed sensibilities, let’s remember Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” (2010), how many times he followed confusing plot turns by having Ellen Page chime in and explain what just happened.

It’s lazy writing. Sometimes I wish I’d named this blog Less Has To Happen.


  1. Joseph Krings says:

    You can drag me to Meek’s Cutoff any time!

  2. You can drag me to Meek’s Cutoff anytime!

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