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Meek’s Cutoff

Indie Art in the Wild West

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars.

In the opening scene of Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt’s (Wendy and Lucy, Old Joy, River of Grass) stunning anti-western, mid-19th-century pioneers and their wagon train guide, their faces obscured by hats or bonnets, cross a river, the men leading the cattle and horses in waist-deep water, the women carrying priceless (to them) belongings on their heads.

It’s the second-to-last time the unnamed pioneers, heading west for their version of the Promised Land, Oregon, will see water. One of the men carves a simple word, “Lost,” on a piece of bleached wood lying near the river. Water, and the search thereof, provides Meek’s Cutoff with a simple, but no less powerful, impetus for the central characters’ literal and metaphorical journey West.

Recorded from a fixed distance by Reichardt’s camera, the pioneers follow their loquacious guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), the closest Meek’s Cutoff comes to an archetypal character found in hundreds, if not thousands, of American Westerns. Meek’s loquaciousness, tempered by verbal switchbacks and sidesteps, hides his inability to admit — either to himself or the pioneers who hired him — that he’s lost, and with water in short supply and the next source of water possibly unreachable, the real life-or-death stakes the pioneers face.

Reichardt gradually brings the camera closer to the pioneers, giving them faces to match their bodies and voices. Soloman Tetherow (Will Patton), serves as the de facto leader of the western expedition. Tetherow’s wife, Emily (Michelle Williams), is significantly younger, but provides female leadership and, when needed after consultation, public support of her husband. The relatively small wagon train (19th-century wagon trains might include 1,000 or more individuals plus livestock and wagons) includes Glory (Shirley Henderson) and William White (Neal Huff), and a young couple Thomas (Paul Dano) and Millie Gately (Zoe Kazan). Conflict naturally erupts over what to do (i.e., continue to follow Meek or another course), exacerbated by their dwindling water supplies.

When the pioneers come across a lone Native-American (Rod Rondeaux), Meek, fearful that he’s not alone or will reveal their presence to others, argues for instant execution. Emily, however, argues for his life, showing kindness (a blanket, food, repairing his moccasin) out of hoped-for reciprocity (i.e., a water source). But privation and exhaustion lead to desperation and, another member of the wagon train, fear, uncertainty, doubt, and, ultimately xenophobia. Reichardt and her screenwriter, Jonathan Raymond (Mildred Pierce, Wendy and Lucy, Old Joy), never translate the Native-American man’s words into English via subtitles, leaving us, like the pioneers, to guess, perhaps incorrectly (but with fewer, if any, consequences for us) his true motives.

That ambiguity in character motivation stretches to the ending, which will leave some moviegoers (assuming they stay with Meek’s Cutoff to the end) perplexed and maybe even angry Reichardt and Raymond for refusing to provide them with the closure typical of mainstream films and others eager to parse meaning from the final shot and a brief speech given by Meek.

Reichardt also chose an austere, meditative filmmaking style: consistently keeping the camera at a distance, eschewing for medium shots or close ups, only moving in to capture an emotional reaction as Meek’s Cutoff reaches the midpoint, holding shots as characters enter and exit the frame, and using a square-like aspect ratio that tends to compress or squeeze the characters from the right and left sides of the frame. For the uninitiated, or the initiated but disinterested, Reichardt’s style might seem tedious and monotonous, but for the initiated (and interested), every shot, every composition, every character movement, no matter how subtle, every word, contains narrative and metaphorical meaning, but only if you look for them.