By Patrick Z. McGavin
Cannes 2010 — Kelly Reichardt surpasses her own recent stretch of superlative films with “Meek’s Cutoff,” her fourth feature, which catapults her into the front-rank of American independent filmmakers. Moody and spellbinding, the new film is a fugue with cumulative impact, gathering an off-handed mystery and poetic rapture.
Indie distributor Oscilloscope, who handled Reichardt’s previous “Wendy and Lucy,” also an excellent film, acquired the distribution rights out of Toronto and announced the film will open next year.
Inspired by true events, Reichardt’s film, written by frequent collaborator Jon Raymond, is her first period work. In many ways, “Meek’s Cutoff” is a Western whose restraint and stripped down purity evokes the works of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher. The movie also touches on certain existential, or acid, Westerns from the 1960s, given that dramatically not a great deal happens, though the power and starting moment of recognition accrue out of the small, private emotional exchanges.
The film’s title refers to Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a trail guide who’s tasked with directing three families and a couple of their children through the Cascade Mountains on the Oregon Trail in 1845. Physically Meek conjures up Lear or a figure out of the Old Testament with his rigid bearing and his long, scraggly beard that makes his face unrecognizable. He has the zealot‘s absolute faith and the settlers tragically take his word when he claims to know a shortcut.
The decision proves disastrous as the wagon bound team almost immediately gets lost in the vast wilderness of the broken, almost hallucinatory landscapes. Their natural resources, especially water, growing scarcer by the moment, panic and dread ricochets among the group. The characters are introduced brusquely, without exposition, the emotional details discovered through the back and forth exchanges.
Clearly, a hierarchal structure among the three families takes hold. Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) and her new husband Solomon (Will Patton) work diligently to assert their authority. Glory and William White (Shirley Henderson and Neal Huff) take a less exalted role, in part because Glory is pregnant and physically vulnerable to the rigor of their journey. Millie and Thomas Gately (Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano) round out the group dynamic, their youth and inexperience subordinating them to a secondary status.
Williams, the star of “Wendy and Lucy,” is majestic, the kind of tough, fearless and flinty woman who challenges the normal suppositions about 19th century women. In one of the most jarring early sequences, she brandishes a rifle and loads it with ordnance before firing it at her target. The ease and confidence she displays is loaded with meaning and character relevance.
As the travelers are swallowed in the immensity of the landscape, Emily becomes the first to openly balk at Meek’s rule. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, her disavowal of the guide severs the group’s implicit trust in Meek’s competence and intentions. The story takes a deep reversal and morally ambiguous shift after a Native American (Rod Rondeaux), possibly a member of the feared American Blackfoot tribe, is captured by the group.
His appearance not only opens up old wounds, calling out Meek’s past involvement in the Indian wars, but also heightens the tension of the group, calling out the racist assumptions of some members. Deciding whether to execute him, the group reluctantly takes him as their hostage. The balance of the film plays out the various tensions and conflicts, between the group, especially as the group becomes increasingly more dependent on the instincts and survivalist impulses of their captive. The question of the Native American’s own methods and intentions makes the work even more elliptical and beguiling.
Stylistically, “Meek’s Cutoff” is a rare, even subversive. Reichardt emphatically ruptures the typical open spaces and vistas of the American West by framing the movie in the very tight Academy ratio of 1:33. The square format employed by Reichardt and her superb cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt concentrate the action and heighten the claustrophobic intensity and sense of entrapment. Leslie Shatz, a key collaborator of Gus Van Sant, also achieves some absolutely spellbinding results with the natural soundtrack.
It is a movie of largely interior spaces, as the characters must cope with their enveloping desperation and rage. But when the action is called on, Reichardt is open to the challenge, especially a late sequence in which the wagon party must manually lower their wagons down a precarious pitch of a deep ravine.
Thematically, the film is very much a piece with Reichardt’s previous work, including “Old Joy,” a meditation on friendship and a harsh critique about sexual and racial roles. It is so subtly woven into the emotional exchanges of the characters, it becomes like the whole film an inquiry into behavior and action and the consequences of folly.
Reichardt is aided by some wonderful actors. Williams anchors the work with a daring and aplomb. Greenwood is equally impressive. His soliloquy about the essential differences of men and women, one marked by destruction and the other chaos, achieves the lyrical. The movie’s tone is slippery and it constantly hovers outside our grasp.
By the time we watch the movie’s extraordinary closing sequence, “Meek’s Cutoff” has achieved an ineffable grace and maturity.