Working on a richer and more intricate canvas than she’s previously attempted, Kelly Reichardt has pulled off a rare thing with “Meek’s Cutoff” — a low-budget period Western with a bracing feminist spin. Re-creating a desolate stretch of the Oregon Trail with a meticulous sense of physical detail, this beautifully hand-crafted picture welds the indie helmer’s subtle political concerns and eye for rugged American landscapes to a spare yet classically involving tale of a wayward wagon team. Despite significant marketing challenges (its title not least among them), this risky accomplishment deserves to command Reichardt’s broadest audience yet.
While the director hails from an experimental/avant-garde background, her previous features “River of Grass,” “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy” have demonstrated a gift for spinning thoughtful, intimately scaled stories with ample rewards for the discerning viewer. With “Meek’s Cutoff,” she’s taken on her biggest budget (essentially a thicker shoestring) and most recognizable cast yet, while fully retaining her patient, deliberate approach to narrative and attentiveness to nature as a character.
The Pacific Northwest again serves as Reichardt’s setting of choice, only this time circa 1845. Three families are slowly heading West in covered wagons, led by mountain man Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), whom they’ve hired to lead them through the Cascade Mountains to the fabled paradise of Willamette Valley. But an unmarked shortcut has led them off the main stem, and as water grows scarce and sightings of Native Americans in the region persist, the travelers become increasingly impatient with the boastful Meek, who insists, “We’re not lost, we’re finding our way.”
The women, forced to walk behind the covered wagons for the entire journey, have little authority, a fact to which Reichardt proves exquisitely sympathetic; cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt often frames the men’s conversations from a respectful distance, keeping the camera close to their wives as they watch and listen in mildly reproving silence. Ironically, then, it’s Emily Tetherow (Williams), the plucky young wife of Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton), who proves most vocal in expressing her distrust for Meek. And when Meek captures a scout from the Cayuse tribe (Rod Rondeaux) and urges that they kill him on the spot, Emily becomes the Native American’s unwitting protector.
Based on a true story and loosely inspired by diaries kept by women at the time, Jon Raymond’s lean script never emphasizes any modern-day parallels, though deeper allegorical readings are there for the taking. If “Wendy and Lucy” expressed quiet anguish for the plight of America’s poor and dispossessed, “Meek’s Cutoff” confronts us with a scenario of manifest destiny at a moral crossroads, forcing its characters — and the viewer — to determine whether the glaring, dark-skinned outsider or the blustering white leader poses the greater threat. This conundrum is sustained up until an ending that will frustrate some, but for those in step with the filmmakers’ intentions, it’s clear the film could end in no other way.
Williams, so heartbreaking in “Wendy and Lucy,” anchors the ensemble with a performance of fierce grit and unflinching moral strength, staring down Meek and firing a rifle with the same bone-deep conviction. Greenwood’s face is almost entirely hidden by a dark beard, but his gravelly voice is instantly recognizable, lending the cocksure Meek an undertow of menace. Fellow travelers Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson have a more difficult time blending in with the milieu initially, while Rondeaux renders the Cayuse captive compellingly unreadable.
Had Robert Flaherty made a documentary on the Oregon Trail, it would look and feel much like “Meek’s Cutoff,” which lingers lovingly on the sights and sounds of a bowl being washed in a creek, or wagon wheels squeaking across the dry, cracked earth. Sound design is minutely detailed, dovetailing almost imperceptibly with Jeff Grace’s muted score.
Reichardt’s decision to shoot in the 1.33 aspect ratio enhances the docu-like feel and yields one majestic composition after another, the nearly square frame capturing the wide-openness of these harshly beautiful desert vistas (Roger Faires is credited for the film’s Oregon locations, which look utterly of the period). Pic is lensed almost entirely in natural light, with nighttime scenes unfolding in a velvety darkness illuminated only by campfires or lanterns. Vicki Farrell’s costumes and David Doernberg’s production design round out a tech package of microbudget authenticity; beautifully embroidered credits sequence is a marvelous touch.