2011, PG, 104 min. Directed by Kelly Reichardt. Starring Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 6, 2011
In her fourth feature film, director Kelly Reichardt laces together the epic and the elementary, twining the Western – that most operatic of cinematic genres, with its Biblically awesome landscapes and us-vs.-them violent clashes – with the ultraprecision of a survivalist story, wherein water, food, shelter, and fire become the only matters of consequence. In other words, moltissimo cut with minimalism. As in Reichardt's last two Oregon-set films, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, location determines plot in Meek's Cutoff, becoming a cruel character in itself. An exact location proves elusive here, which is rather the point, as seven pioneers in 1845, journeying along the still-new Oregon Trail, come to the terrifying conclusion that they are lost. The real-life Stephen Meek (Greenwood), a raggedy-bearded braggart, is their supposedly informed hired guide, but his swagger has gotten the small band nowhere. That's not technically true: They're somewhere, all right – a bone-dry, vast expanse pocked with at least one Native American carefully tracking their trudge through territory uncharted by white men – and as the film progresses, that somewhere starts to look like it may very well be the emigrants' final resting place. Reichardt dedicates long but intensely involving minutes to detailing the laboriousness of their collective existence: how every foothold becomes essential in a shoulder-deep water-crossing, how a sentimental attachment to a caged songbird or a mother's hand-me-down piece of cabinetry devalues to nothing more than dead weight when the oxen are starving, and how the bandwagon's three wives quietly sustain the group, doing the wash, lighting the fires, and feeding the men with tight-lipped determination (they're played by Williams, Henderson, and Kazan; authentically, the most convincing affection here occurs between these haggard women, not between the husbands and wives). When their watcher – known only as "The Indian" (played by Rondeaux, a stuntman and former rodeo player) – is captured by an overzealous Meek, the single-minded focus of the characters, and the film, expands to explore the dynamics of groupthink. The filmmakers have stated their intention for the film to serve in part as an allegory of the George W. Bush era (in that context, Greenwood's broadly sketched, buffoonish Meek makes more sense), and that concept plays out most intriguingly, I think, in the tacit consent of the pioneers as mute witnesses. They may flinch at Meek's rough handling of the Indian, but they are too hungry, too drained, too cowed to resist. Williams' frontier wife Emily is the only would-be settler to openly question Meek's authority; in turn, the audience may question crafty Emily's motivations – are they born of principle or spite or survivalist stratagem? Even caked in grime, Williams is radiant, softly featured, and of sharp mind. She starred in Reichardt's last film, Wendy and Lucy, too, and if Meek's Cutoff fails, it's only in comparison to that picture: This revisionist Western – intellectually, aesthetically, and narratively absorbing – rattles to the bone, but never quite rends the heart. (For an interview with the director, see "Into the West," May 6.)