There’s not a significant conversation heard during the first 20 minutes of Meek’s Cutoff , Director Kelly Reichardt’s austere, shattering tale from the Oregon Trail. All the exposition you need comes from forlorn Paul Dano carving a single word into a stray log: “Lost.”
Set in 1845 and loosely inspired by actual events, the film follows three families of settlers who broke off from a larger wagon train, taking the advice of a bearded blowhard named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who claimed to know a shortcut. Decked out in a Buffalo Bill-styled fringe jacket and constantly spinning tall tales of frontier horse-pucky, Meek’s practically a parody of cowboy arrogance. Except you won’t find any laughs here.
Reichardt’s film is muted, severe and hardly an audience-friendly experience. In the spirit of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry , it’s another one of those art movies that film critics like because nothing happens. I was hypnotized from the opening sequence, in which the settlers ford a river—a grueling process depicted in minute detail. Meek’s Cutoff is about the day-to-day grind, mundane tasks and the sick, helpless feeling of not knowing where you’re going. As supplies run low, there’s a mounting sense of queasiness and dread that becomes almost overwhelming. When the movie was over, I had to go walk it off for a little while before I felt like talking to anybody.
Michelle Williams, who starred in Reichardt’s previous film, Wendy And Lucy , plays Emily Tetherow, a wife who resents Meek’s know-nothing bluster, but must quietly seethe and stay in her place with the rest of the women walking behind the wagons. The camera tends to hang back with the ladies (Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson round out the trio), while all life-and-death decisions are made by the men, glimpsed from a distance and just barely out of earshot.
There’s a harshness and cruelty to the landscape here, which is depicted as more like an alien planet than your typical Western postcard vistas. Reichardt and ace cinematographer Chris Blauvelt shoot in the boxy, 1.33 aspect ratio, constricting the vast panoramas to a narrow window. It’s a sly visual strategy to force us to see the journey through the women’s perspective, as they’re all wearing bonnets that stretch out for more than a foot, blocking off their peripheral vision.
Is Michelle Williams the most mesmerizing actress working right now? She has such a serene presence and yet the emotions are so clearly roiling under the surface. I never feel like I’m catching her “acting,” but she makes simple behavior seem revelatory. Wendy And Lucy already proved that Williams was the perfect muse for Reichardt, who seems constitutionally averse to dramatic gestures, and prefers to let silences do the talking.
Some pundits have run with the allegorical implications of an inarticulate cowboy leading foolishly over-trusting folks into a quagmire in the desert. There’s certainly a political slant to Jon Raymond’s screenplay, if that’s what you’re interested in. But personally, I feel like such a simple interpretation undervalues the effect of what Reichardt has done here.
I was far more taken with the subtle power struggle that emerges between Emily Tetherow and Meek, as the settlers’ situation grows increasingly desperate. In the second hour they capture a lone Indian from an undetermined tribe—though Meek has many theories, most of which contradict one another. He might be able to lead them to water, or into an ambush. Or maybe he’s just lost, too? Emily is the only one who treats their prisoner with anything resembling kindness, but even she has ulterior motives. (“I want him to owe me something,” Emily explains.)
Played by Rod Rondeaux, billed in the credits as “The Indian,” he bellows and chants in an unknown, un-subtitled language. There’s no irony lost that his rantings aren’t all that much less coherent than Meek’s mumble-mouthed tall-tales of frontier glory. Eventually, Meek’s Cutoff builds to a question of trusting the devil you know, or the devil you can’t even understand. As options grow narrower, the visual language of the film itself contracts even further, shooting the characters partially obscured by foreground obstacles, until release finally arrives in a final confrontation that’s exhilarating in its own peculiar, quiet way.
Meek’s Cutoff is a haunting, divisive experience, one destined to leave some viewers confounded and others spellbound. Count me in the latter camp.