Arduous, dispassionate, believable, and bracingly original, Meek’s Cutoff is an ambitious feat of visual storytelling that’s alive to both its landscape and the people who inhabit it. Meticulous and immersive, like history in three dimensions, it’s a highly textured chronicle of encountering the terror and vastness of the unknown, as witnessed through the lives of its hard-bitten protagonists.
Meek’s Cutoff shadows a group of pioneers (Shirley Henderson, Neal Duff, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano) who are shuffling through uncharted terrain en route to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1845. Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is a bearded mountain man contracted to guide the octet over the Cascade Mountains towards civilization. Though he isn’t sure where they’re going, his cowboy bluster prevents him from admitting to any doubt. When the racist Meek captures a Cayuse Indian, the others are forced to confront their worst instincts and their very real need for a savior.
This bare-bones narrative – stripped of fat, splayed of meat or flesh – is a heroic undertaking. Two shots fired in rapid succession, a kick to the face that occurs off camera, a rope snapping as a runaway wagon rolls down a steep grade: these are the unembellished events that bring the characters to the precipice of extinction, teetering on the margins between life and death.
As Emily Tetherow, the toiling partner of Solomon (Will Patton), Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine) compresses the entire history of frontier wifeliness into the concentration with which she gathers firewood and loads a musket. A kind of “guardian angel,” Williams gives Emily, if not dignity, then a calm, steely insistence on survival. Her face is an evocative wonder, and her quiet ferocity makes her a natural muse for director-editor Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy).
In her third feature, Reichardt does justice to the myth of the early settlers. The way that Reichardt contrasts dusty, activity-ridden frames with emptiness, employing disciplined stillness and long takes as she tracks the arid, wide-open wasteland, is a testament to her award-winning prowess. Jon Raymond’s screenplay is shrewd: “We’re not lost, we’re just finding our way”; “Women are created on the principle of chaos … men are created on the principle of destruction.” The sound design is also clever, with the audience sharing the females’ frustration at the maddeningly inaudible male voices when they bicker in hushed whispers at every crossroads.
It must be one of the most unlit pictures in years, with at least twenty or twenty-five minutes taking place in darkness, with brief flickers of reprieve from a campfire or lantern. Christopher Blauvelt achieves splendiferous cinematography through creative composition (via the back of a covered wagon or the broken branches of a tree), rocky crags jutting across the blue sky like reddish lightning, the yellows and browns of a luminous golden hue. In fact, the daytime photography echoes Néstor Almendros’ revolutionary and Oscar-winning work in Days of Heaven.
The film is incongruous: some of it is barely seen, most of it is barely heard, yet all of it is keenly felt and experienced. Although some argue that the ending (“We’re all just playing our parts now. This was written long before we got here”) seems calculated to drive the literal-minded screaming out of the theater and strains for a poetic grandeur that feels out of step with the modesty of what’s come before, it is appropriately resigned. It still won’t be everyone’s slug of bourbon.
Meek’s Cutoff is a rough gem, realistic and allegorical, ponderously slow in pace yet kinetically charged with insight. It’s a quintessential road movie about the unequal distribution of resources and the frustrations of the disenfranchised. And it’s a master class in the power of observation that richly rewards the patient. At this cutoff, there may be no comfort, no shelter, no water, no light, but there is beauty, and depth, and valour. It’s Reichardt at her most skillfully formalistic, and Williams at her typical peak.