By Linc Leifeste | April 29, 2011
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Writer: Jonathan Raymond
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux
Loosely inspired by a true story, Meek’s Cutoff tells the story of a small group of pioneers’ 1845 attempt to relocate to Oregon via a tortured journey along the Oregon Trail. With all of their remaining worldly possessions loaded in wagons and all their faith placed in their guide, the grizzled and slightly sinister trapper and mountain man Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), they are attempting an arduous trek across the roughest of country in hopes of starting over in a new land. While on its face Meek’s Cutoff is a fairly simplistic and straightforward film, scratch just under the surface and you find that it operates on multiple levels.
The film’s unwavering starkly realistic atmosphere and minimalist mood are set early, from the initial hand-stitched title card to the opening shots of the three families and their covered wagons cautiously crossing a river to the shot of a character carving the word “LOST” on the side of a dead tree, with not a single spoken word of dialogue for the first several minutes of the film. The silence is finally broken by the voice of the sole child on the journey (Tommy Nelson) reading a biblical passage from the Book of Genesis.
As unpleasant as the river-crossing might have been, the travelers might never have moved on if only they knew what awaited them. Traveling through an arid, barren and unforgiving country, the diminishing water supply slowly dwindles in direct contrast to the ever-increasing sense of being lost. While the men meet discreetly at night to discuss their concerns about the questionable guidance of Meek and whether to abandon (or lynch) him, the neglected women are left to eavesdrop and clandestinely gossip in order to have any knowledge of their fate despite having to carry a large portion of the workload. As for Meek himself, he continues to be a confidence man never expressing any doubt or concern that he might be leading his charges to their doom.
It’s shortly after Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), the film’s closest thing to a leading character, has an encounter with a lone Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) that Meek’s control over the settlers and their journey peaks before his influence slowly begins to wane. Warning of their impending destruction at the hands of maniacal Indians, Meek sets off in pursuit and soon returns with the Indian in his custody and encourages the group to immediately execute the captive. But Soloman Tetherow (Will Patton), something of a leader among the three families, has other ideas. He argues that in the Cayuse Indian lies their last best chance of finding water.
In the slowly simmering power struggle that ensues, which peaks when Meek (after a particularly embarrassing failure of leadership) decides to take matters into his own hands by executing the captive Cayuse only to find himself thwarted by a bold display of power by Emily Tetherow, Meek soon finds himself in the role of follower.
This scene is also about as close as the film gets to an action sequence. While in basic appearances a Western, the lack of violence and adrenaline, among other aspects, sets it apart. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to pigeonhole Meek’s Cutoff. At times I found it be more of a horror film than a Western, with it’s ever growing sense of doom and despair. I most found myself most reminded of recent masterpiece There Will Be Blood, although the comparison is not completely accurate. While turning the western genre on its head and relying on subtext and metaphor, Meek’s Cutoff never feels like a quirky modernist indie exercise in deconstruction, unlike another film I was reminded of, Dead Man. I felt like the events of the film all could have happened in 1845 and the film could theoretically be read as a simple and straightforward narrative of a few days of hellish life on the Oregon Trail. Everything happens just below the surface; therefore while not much is happening it’s possible to read endlessly into those events. Among the many thought-provoking elements of the story are issues of materialism, fear of “other,” the wisdom of placing trust in leadership, the marginalization of women and countless others.
Meek himself is a tough nut to crack. On one hand he’s the archetypical American explorer, the rugged individualist, tough as leather and fearless to boot. And in some senses he’s likable enough, with his gruff but folksy mannerisms and semi-charming way with children. But it quickly becomes apparent that he may not be as able as he is confident and before long you begin to wonder if hell might not be filled with Meeks instead of the bears or Indians of his tales. Maybe he’s more George W. Bush than he is Jim Bridger, the simplistic confidence man in over his head but not aware enough to even realize it, continuing to press on until those around him eventually look around and realize they’re heading in the wrong direction.
By providing no back-story and no narrative assistance, director Kelly Reichardt allows the viewer to fill in all the blanks, which ultimately means the film has as many interpretations as there are viewers. This film is a minimalist’s wet dream and a mainstream film lover’s nightmare. While this is her third film, arguably third of a trilogy, all set in Pacific Northwest and all dealing with some of the same themes of alienation, displacement, materialism, destiny and countless other grand philosophical and moral issues, Reichardt is still something of an unknown to most. And while she has by now firmly established herself as a premiere American filmmaker, particularly with this nearly flawless film, I can’t imagine her radically minimalist style of filmmaking will ever set the box office on fire.