Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
Written by: Jon Raymond (screenplay)
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, and Shirley Henderson
The post-modern western Meek’s Cutoff, the latest from minimalist director Kelly Reichardt, operates with two things in mind: people are indecisive, and the Oregon Trail is beautiful. In this quiet, contemplative film we find an American allegory set against the Western Expansion in the 1800s.
A group of settlers is led by a guide named Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a bearded troubadour who prefers to burn through the plains rather than accept their dominance. The whole film rotates around the settlers’ mounting uncertainty, especially that of Emily (Michelle Williams).
Meek’s Cutoff acknowledges the intolerance of the time period, and uses it as a mirror to today. Screenwriter Jon Raymond has written some beautifully expressive dialogue in this film, especially considering how little overall talking there is. The back-and-forth Meek and Emily share when he asks her if she hates him is one of the most well-written exchanges of the year.
The role of Emily does not mark the first time Williams has operated in the low-key films of Ms. Reichardt. The two brilliantly collaborated in 2008’s Wendy and Lucy, another earnest American folktale set in Oregon. That film was better, and Williams was better in it, but this one is still quite good. It has more in common with Reichardt’s 2006 film Old Joy with its picturesque nature setting and many unspoken implications. This is not the bombastic Western setting of John Ford or Sergio Leone. There are no grandiose shootouts or even any cowboys (It’s rated PG).
Instead of typical Western conventions that directors like the Coen Brothers have subverted to their own post-modern ends, Reichardt favors a mood of near-tranquility. There are outbursts, as when Meek and another settler played by Paul Dano bring back a Native American captive. Fear of the unknown seeps to the surface, but Emily’s whispering into the ear of her husband (Will Patton) turns the “savage” into their guide instead of a corpse.
Muttering is largely how Emily and the other women silently get their way in this movie. There are several instances where the men mutter to themselves about what it is the camp should do. Reichardt almost always pans to the women, silently gathered to the side and watching their lives being decided for them. They recall the nuns of Doubt, albeit with more colorful garments, in more ways than one.
This is important to note because it clearly establishes Reichardt’s vision of the film and her identity as one of the few female directors working today. Had a male director been behind the camera, those scenes may have been shot quite differently. The most revolutionary thing about Meek’s Cutoff may be that it confronts gender without sacrificing any of the realism in the time period. When Emily takes up arms against Meek in the film’s climax it’s, as the New York Times also noted, more than a gun she’s wielding.
Just because Meek’s Cutoff is not as masterful as Wendy and Lucy does not dismiss it from discussion. In fact, it is still a very fine film, one that has a clearly defined worldview and cinematography that is absolutely striking given the budget. The early images of a vast empty field and the howling wind striking a lone Emily behind the other wagons is a perfect visual metaphor for its themes. On this journey they are all together but separate, moving forward with no direction at all.