Review: Meek's Cutoff
5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
In the long-lingering, observational western “Meek's Cutoff,” there's always something big within director Kelly Reichardt's frame, some bold gesture or stirring vista counteracting her expert minimalism. The film's contemplative nature yields many unhurried, seemingly simple shots, but none have the pretense or thematic forcefulness of what's found in, say, Sofia Coppola's “Somewhere.” Though the delivery never feels like more than an effortless trickle, meaning and purpose flood Reichardt's imagery, be it in a slow transition that hauntingly illustrates a journey's progress; the urgent, volumes-speaking, landscape-scanning pursuit of a windswept item; or a final shot – easily the year's best thus far – that's brimming with irony, unease, retribution, reflection and also hope. This is a movie of great beauty and profundity, both unspoken and plain-spoken. What it has to show and tell is at once bracingly frank and perfectly subtle. The intimations of the carefully-chosen language and the intimacy of the immediate circumstances suggest the piece would work very well as a stage play; however, it is invaluably thrust into an unforgiving wilderness, affording it dire stakes and rich visual texture.
The setting is somewhere near northeastern Oregon circa 1845, where three families with three covered wagons are following the rough-and-tumble explorer Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a mountain man they hired to guide them across an uncharted desert offshoot of the Oregon Trail. In actuality, Meek led some 1,000 pioneers with about 200 wagons along the alternate route, which would allegedly bypass a treacherous mountain range. Working from a script by Oregon-based writer Jon Raymond, whose short stories inspired both of her most recent efforts, “Wendy and Lucy” and “Old Joy,” Reichardt narrows the focus to a cross-section of travelers, and thus, a cross-section of 19th century America. In the filmmaker's gently feminist purview, the men are more static and far less knotty than the women, who form a neat trifecta of presumably accurate female types of the day: the hard-nosed, self-sufficient skeptic (Michelle Williams); the selfless, idealistic wife and mother (Shirley Henderson); and the naïve, vulnerable hysteric (Zoe Kazan). This is not to say that the men, or husbands (played by Will Patton, Paul Dano and Neal Huff), are underdeveloped, nor that the deep and tremulous feelings are reserved for their wives. Everyone in the group, including a young boy (Tommy Nelson), are strangers in a strange land, and Reichardt makes brilliant use of their uniform, comprehensive fear of the unknown.
“Meek's Cutoff” is a treatise on ignorance and how it has spread and thrived throughout our country's history, fueled by dangerous influence, word-of-mouth and groupthink. The travelers regard their promised-land destination as both a heaven and a hell, a place where dreams may come true, but where alien nightmares may also be waiting. The growly, heavily-bearded Meek (the creation of whom would net Greenwood awards if not also a feat for the makeup department) serves, on the outset, as these people's messianic shepherd, but he's also a reckless source of fear-mongering. The group's narrow-minded terrors are soon embodied by a Native American wanderer they encounter – and capture – during their unnerving trek. Meek beats the stranger, and ceaselessly tells his followers that such “heathens” are deadly, deceptive and worthless. But a need for water and a growing uncertainty of place makes the wanderer an asset, turning the tables until it's clear who's truly guiding the sheep.
One of the more impactful components of Reichardt's political shift is the complicated relationship that forms between Williams's character, Emily, and the Native American. The first to discover him, she's as repulsed and wary as the rest of her white company, but she has the wisdom to try to communicate rationally and pursue mutual benefits, which inevitably results in a semblance of understanding. While one might naturally mark Williams's Oscar-nominated work in “Brokeback Mountain” as the start of her unceasing artistic ascent, it's difficult to pinpoint when, exactly, she became one of America's most exciting actresses. She's beginning to rival even Tilda Swinton in terms of her taste in projects, and while she's hardly a chameleon, she has an impenetrable, unswerving naturalism that does wonders for her films. Her hardened, increasingly soiled face begins to dictate how we process this story's themes, her stares and reactions saying more than perhaps anything else in the movie (which, indeed, is saying quite a lot).
Aside from the visage of her muse (Williams, of course, was also Wendy in “Wendy and Lucy”), Reichardt uses extremely painstaking details and pacing to present the ways and travails of a people. We are usually just watching – watching Emily systematically load a rifle to fire a warning shot; watching the laborious steps of knitting or preparing food; watching Kazan's hysteric offer precious water to the parakeet that reminds her of home; or even watching the cultural line blur as the wanderer draws on a rock and echoes the young boy's earlier wood carvings. A lot of viewers are going to complain about the film's heavy gait, but the events are never needlessly slow. The pace is essential for relaying the arduousness of the characters' journey, and, like the best of the screen's sparing works of art, the thoughtful lack of action allows for severe intensity in the intermittent dramatic bursts (a wrecked wagon and a spilled water supply will make you gasp for air). Naturally, Chris Blauvelt's cinematography, which almost immediately calls to mind the lensing of “Days of Heaven,” keeps the eyes engaged, its harsh majesty and shrewd implications always highly transfixing. But, still, this is a movie of which the experience truly begins post-credits. It's astonishing how much Reichardt is able to convey and make you think about – and keep thinking about – with such a limited palette. She is an ace storyteller of mighty, artful intellect. In “Meek's Cutoff,” she covers more ground than her trudging pioneers.