Meek’s Cutoff represents a significant step forward for director Kelly Reichardt, a critical darling whose work to this point (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy) I’ve faintly admired. Reichardt’s previous films were small-scale indie doodles – slight exercises in atmosphere and introspection. This is an ambitious period piece that nonetheless retains Reichardt’s talent for capturing human moments in real time. It’s a bigger movie in both milieu and meaning.
Set in 1845, the film follows a band of settlers who have lost their way in the Oregon wilderness. Their hired guide, Stephen Meek (a growling, unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood), is part mountain man and part salesman, spinning tales of wild adventure instead of admitting to their dire straits. Eventually one of the couples (Michelle Williams and Will Patton) contradicts Meek, resulting in a power struggle that comes to a head when the group encounters a lone Native American (Rod Rondeaux).
Notice the movie centers on one of the couples, not one of the men. A crucial distinction of Meek’s Cutoff is its egalitarian nature. Because Reichardt is a woman, some have labeled it as a feminist Western. (For what it’s worth, the original screenplay was written by Jonathan Raymond.) But in reality it’s beyond – and better – than that. Reichardt’s view of the world here is a holistic one in that it encompasses this specific time and place as it was experienced by everyone who was there. Yes, men have their traditional roles and women have theirs, but the point is they both have roles to play and are given the opportunity to play them.
Consequently, Meek’s Cutoff offers one of the most encouraging portraits of marriage I’ve seen in a film in quite some time. After the men have their nightly conference about where things stand and what direction they should head, Soloman Tetherow (Patton) comes into the tent to share and deliberate with his wife Emily (Williams) by the faint glow of a lantern. (The lighting throughout, nearly always coming from a primitive, period-appropriate source, is exquisite.) Emily and Soloman trust each other’s counsel and, even when they disagree in private, stand united before the others. They’re true partners in this perilous endeavor and a rare depiction of marital strength onscreen.
Reichardt and Williams previously worked together on Wendy and Lucy, in which the latter played a vulnerable drifter hanging on at the outskirts of society. Williams is a more forceful presence here, a bonnet unafraid of beards. Emily defers to her husband publicly, but she isn’t afraid to challenge Meek, something Soloman see as her right as much as it is his (notice Soloman’s quiet aside during one particularly tense standoff between Emily and Meek).
The costumes, including the bonnets, are only one of the acute details Reichardt employs to emphasize her themes of gender, civilization and survival. One of the many quiet shots of the group traveling depicts a caged canary – so delicate and fragile – being carried overhead at a river crossing. At another point, one of the men fruitlessly carves a single word into a piece of deadwood, capitalized to denote desperation: “LOST.”
In its regard for nature and its narrative patience (not to mention its non-ending ending), Meek’s Cutoff is reminiscent of the cinematic wanderings of Terrence Malick. Malick, whose The Tree of Life opened a few months after Meek’s Cutoff, can be frustratingly amorphous. Reichardt’s film, for all its elusiveness, manages a more rewarding focus. At once gossamer and purposeful, it’s Malick with a map.