Three families make the precarious journey across young America to start a new life in the virgin lands of Oregon. To get to their final destination, they hire mountain man Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a grizzled guide who vows that he knows the Oregon Trail like the back of his hand. He decides to take a shortcut to save time but, instead, gets the party lost in a strange land, running low on water and, possibly, being pursued by Indians when they take “Meek’s Cutoff.”
Helmer Kelly Reichardt is known for her low-key, languidly-paced slice-of-life films “Old Joy” and Oscar-nom'd “Wendy and Lucy.” She takes languid down a notch with her original western saga “Meek’s Cutoff” and succeeds in making the quiet story of survival another original.
The film begins as the three-wagon train crossing forbidding terrain. As they move forward, one of the men walks behind after he carves a single word on a piece of deadwood – LOST. This sets the tone for the remainder of this quiet tale as the men – Soloman (Will Patton), Thomas (Paul Dano) and William (Neal Huff) – discuss Meek’s decision to veer off course. The women – Emily (Michelle Williams), Millie (Zoe Kazan) and Glory (Shirley Henderson) – dutifully follow their husbands and are not included in the manly talk. But, the general consensus is that the tiny party of settlers is in serious trouble, especially after spotting a lone Indian (Rod Rondeaux) watching them.
The tension is low-key but sustained throughout with the travelers facing real problems – like dying of thirst or being killed by savages. Nothing “happens” in “Meek’s Cutoff” but the story, by Jonathan Raymond, draws you into the lives of the families and the mind of Meek, who, despite his claims of being an expert guide, is a braggart whose decision to take the cutoff is, at the very least, a fool’s choice.
Acting, like the story, is reality-based with all the players developing into believable and, due to their circumstances, extremely anxious characters. There is nary a false note as the adults, along with their children, struggle day by day to survive the harsh elements. As it becomes clear to the party that their guide is wrong and they may be stranded to face death, the barely-under-control fear is palpable.
Techs are expertly handled across the board. Newbie feature film cinematographer does a remarkable job in making beautiful the harsh, uninviting landscape. The framing of many of the long shots of the settlers’ trek are absolutely photographic. The period feel, circa 1845 western America, is detailed and accurate, from the Conestoga wagons to the rustic wardrobe.
The slow, deliberate unfolding of this family survival saga may be a problem for audiences used to gunfights and Indian attacks in their westerns. But, for someone like me who loves movies, it is a reinventing of the genre where nothing seems to happen but lots does. I give it a B.
In 1845, three families have paid Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, "Thirteen Days," "Dinner for Schmucks," almost unrecognizable under mounds of dust and facial hair) to lead their wagon train over the Cascade Mountains. He claims to know a shorter way, but as days go by it becomes apparent they are lost in lands scarce with water. When they cross paths with a Native American Indian (Rod Rondeaux, "The Missing"), Meek wants to execute the man, but Soloman Tetherow (Will Patton, "The Mothman Prophecies," "Wendy and Lucy") believes he may know more about the landscape than their purported leader and the group begins to wonder if the man they hired is not just incompetent but a traitor leading them into danger from the path they took at "Meek's Cutoff."
Director Kelly Reichardt and her "Old Joy" and "Wendy and Lucy" screenwriter Jonathan Raymond (HBO's 'Mildred Pierce') continue to explore American themes of explorations and migrations, of distant places offering a new start. But in Reichardt's worlds, these plans go awry due to lost ways and vehicle breakdowns and companions who stray the course. The travelers are forced to rely on the kindness of strangers and paid services.
In Reichardt's latest, she takes the great American film genre - the Western - and makes it her own by making the point of view distinctly feminine. The three wives, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams, "Brokeback Mountain"), pregnant Glory White (Shirley Henderson, "Harry Potter's" Moaning Myrtle, "Life During Wartime") and the young and timid Millie Gately (Zoe Kazan, "The Exploding Girl," "Happythankyoumoreplease"), often gather together observing the men in the distance making decisions. They trudge along behind the wagons, staring at the ground, in a shambling trance and perform the daily routines of cooking and mending by rote. Even Reichardt's aspect ratio, the rarely seen 1:33:1, is the antithesis of how we usually picture our Westerns, the vast horizon cropped and made claustrophobic, the focus on the current step rather than the destination. Jeff Grace’s score is also atypical, the occasional aural cello moan or chord punctuation.
Reichardt's "Wendy and Lucy" star Williams is the film's focal point, the needle on a compass being pulled by Meek and the Indian, her husband (Wendy's mechanic) and the other men ("There Will Be Blood's "Paul Dano as Thomas Gately, 'The Wire's' Neal Huff as William White) vaguely willing to follow her lead, it being at least a known quantity. It is Emily who first handles a rifle, loading one upon the news of Indian presence, firing one as warning, aiming one to make a stand. It is also Emily who approaches the Indian, bringing him food, mending his moccasin ('the stench!'), in an attempt at conciliation and rebellion against Meek. The guide spoke boastfully of taking part in an Indian slaughter, admitting its unfairness (Indians were targeted in a river, forced to hide beneath the water until they couldn't breath) in the face of Emily's condemnation. Solomon notes that Emily may just be more against Meek than for the Indian. (The press notes mark a parallel to U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, which is surely present in the triangle of White interloper, paid 'ally' and suspicious native, but the gender politics here, especially given the time, pit strength against power.)
The film has a strange, slow moving beauty. Production designer David Doernberg was meticulous in his research of the time and place and costume designer Vicki Farrell even hand sewed the costumes for authenticity. But this is a film of small, quiet subtleties with a poetic, if somewhat ambiguous ending, the film's biggest horizon. Fans of Reichardt's work, of which I consider myself a member, should find a lot to contemplate in the last of what she is referring to as her 'Oregon Trilogy.' Many have found the film glacially paced (Reichardt edited, using mostly long takes). This is one filmmaker who is most unlikely to have her work featured at the multiplex anytime soon, but "Meek's Cutoff" is worth seeking out for a unique viewpoint on a slice of Americana.
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