The western art film that is Meek’s Cutoff is a curious concoction, introducing the minimalist sensibilities of Kelly Reichardt’s previous films, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, to a canvas wider in scope and historical import. It’s 1845 and Stephen Meek is a for-hire guide leading a handful of immigrant families across the Oregon Trail in search of the American dream. As hours turn into days since their last discovery of fresh water, mutinous thoughts and paranoid rumors abound among the families over the ability and motivations of their delegated leader. “We ain’t lost, we are just finding our way” is Meek’s obtuse reply. The barren landscape is no place for semantics, as desperation takes its course the cutoff they have taken leave them with no choice but to go further into uncharted territory. Along the way a Cayuse Indian enters the story, testing the faith and prejudices of those involved he becomes a potential key to their very survival. Not knowing who to trust while the water reserves dwindle and the desert heat swelters, the settlers wrestle over questions of ethics and necessity. Part suspense story, part historical drama, part meditation on the frailty of life, Meek’s Cutoff is a mesmerizing feat that while slow-moving is continually engrossing to watch.
Chief among its qualities is the sheer beauty of it all. Foregoing the impulse for John Ford escapism, Reichardt chose the 1.35:1 aspect ratio to tell her story, denying the vista widescreen cinema we are accustom to in the genre in order to evoke the confined headspace of the settlers unable to see what awaits them over every hill and valley. Every advantage of the new ratio is played out in her compositions, taking on a framed simplicity of a Millet painting. The light hues of costumes and covered wagons by day are intermittently broken up with dimly lit campfire nights each affording their own vestiges of historical authenticity, the day/night intervals adding to the calm monotony to which the film paces itself. The quiet rhythm is reminiscent of Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, another story of individuals lost in a desert, were it not for Meek’s boisterous posturing and Emily Tetherow’s (Michelle Williams) vocal resistance, the film could have quite easily slipped into the fugue-like listlessness of Gerry, but Reichardt every so often breaks the silence with these bouts of ego and frustration.
Outside of Meek, there is little to speak of with regards to character and performance considering how subdued the proceedings are, though Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, Paul Dano, and Will Patton all work within their modest roles admirably. The titular role of Meek is played mischievously by Bruce Greenwood apparently channeling Yosemite Sam under his burly beard. The thorn in his side, Emily Tetherow, is played fiercely by Michelle Williams, essentially the heroine of the story. Though mostly an exchange of glances, her coy relationship with the Cayuse Indian is central to the quandaries of faith in the film. Emily is a woman of her times and yet in this unnatural setting and situation prone to vocal dissent, the faint emergence of feminist attitude while blindly harboring prejudices of her own.
There is more than one cutoff at play in Meek’s Cutoff and for some this aspect of the film may upset or excite, depending on your proclivity. At first I was disappointed, but upon consideration understand that it had to happen this way. A gorgeous film, one of the best of the festival, Meek’s Cutoff is one I plan to come back to again and again.