I should note outright that I am not, strictly speaking, a fan of Kelly Reichardt. I found the much-praised Wendy and Lucy (2008) a dreary bore. But then, I’m not a huge admirer of so-called minimalist filmmaking. It came as something of a surprise how very much I liked her latest, Meek’s Cutoff. It’s not that it’s in a particularly more lively style, but something—I’m guessing it’s the subject matter—made it an altogether different experience. There is a kind of quiet grandeur to it—and this keeps the movie compelling in ways that set it well apart from Wendy and Lucy.
The fact-based story follows a small wagon train headed up by guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) that—on his advice—departs from the Oregon Trail to take what he presented as a shortcut. The problem arises from the fact that not only is it not what Meek said it was, but that it becomes increasingly obvious that Meek hasn’t the first clue about where they are or where they should go. With their water and supplies dwindling in the trek through the dry and desolate wilderness, tensions reach new heights with the discovery and subsequent capture of a Native American, known in the film only as “the Indian” (stuntman Rod Rondeaux). Meek’s argument is the man is leading his tribe to them in order to murder the settlers, but the others have mixed feelings about this interpretation.
This wagon train—reduced in size from the historical one—is essentially a microcosm. There’s the young couple—Thomas (Paul Dano) and Millie Gately (Zoe Kazan)—who probably have no business undertaking the trip in the first place, as evidenced by their insistence on bringing a canary in a cage with them. Then there are the Whites (Shirley Henderson and Neal Huff), who cling to Bible verse and seem propelled by some form of visionary “manifest destiny.” The most important couple, though, are Emily (Michelle Williams) and Solomon Tetherow. They are neither babes in the woods (or wilderness), nor are they visionary zealots. Rather, they’re realists—and they’ve become rightfully skeptical of Meek. Emily in particular is doubtful of him.
It is Emily who thinks the Indian might be able to lead them to water. It is she who treats him like a human being (though it is her husband who explains the man’s actions at one point). She even mends his mocassin at one point—to the astonishment of the others. This, however, is not out of compassion or any kind of modern sensibility, but rather out of a desire that he should owe her something. All of this—the xenophobia, the landscape, the setting out on a task none of them actually understands, the character types—is clearly meant to draw a parallel to the war in Iraq, but it’s never allowed to overwhelm the film’s drama.
And, yes, there is drama here, though it’s rarely stated and rarely straightforward. The performances are spare. There’s not a lot of dialogue and what there is is largely functional. The characters are suggested more than clearly drawn (the film unfolds for some time at the beginning without revealing the players’ faces). Still, there’s a great drama that bubbles beneath the surface and is shrouded in the film’s ambiguity. There’s a stark, unromanticized sense of the journey West that owes nothing—apart from the terrifying grandeur of the landscape—to the traditional Western film. That said, I will note that the film is neither fast-paced nor action-packed, and is not going to be to everyone’s taste. But those who respond to it are apt to find mesmerizing—and possibly shattering. Rated PG for some mild violent content, brief language and smoking.