Title: Meek’s Cutoff
Genre: Western, Drama
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Screenplay: Jonathan Raymond
Music: Jeff Grace
Cinematography: Christopher Blauvelt
US indie female filmmaker Kelly Reichardt’s antebellum western allegory MEEK’S CUTOFF is an odd addition to the hallowed genre, with an entire ensemble cast of 9, traversing through the Oregon High Desert with their wagons. There are three families of settlers, Emily (Williams) and Solomon Tetherow (Patton), Thomas and Mille Gately (Dano and Kazan), William and Glory White (Huff and Henderson) with their teenage son Jimmy (Nelson) plus the titular Stephen Meek (Greenwood), their guide.
But Meek’s cutoff doesn’t pan out as he has promised, their journey is prolonged with no clear improvement in sight, morale begins to pall and water is in shortage, when they capture a solitary Indian (Rondeaux) and foist him to lead them to water, rift will soon divide themselves, but to what end? Reichardt confects something very anti-climatic along the line.
Adhering to the tenet of preserving and reflecting naturalistic pulchritude of its expansive surroundings, the film certainly takes its time to observe human actions under this primordial circumstances and often the camera stays put and lets the narrative take its own course within the frame; similarly during the night scenery, only candlelight and campfire is used against a pitch-black night or the interior of a tent. This minimalism approach makes for an intimate study of those settlers, especially of the women front, upgrades them from an often underrepresented and/or stereotyped fix to the spotlight, it is mostly through Emily Tetherow, the story manages to bring forth its central conflict of trust, (mis)understanding, fortitude and belief. Who can they trust, is it Meek, an supposedly experienced guide who gradually loses other’s trust due to his inexplicable incapability? Or the Indian, who could be dangerously duplicitous, and their communication is gravely undermined by their language barrier. Emily makes her choice (with tact too), and the film broaches an abrupt open ending without confirmation of either because there mustn’t be any consolation prize, no fight-or-flight finale, let the uncertainty rule, just for once.
Reichardt doesn’t give much dramatic outpourings to her cracking cast but Michelle Williams still holds court and gives a contained but gritty performance head and shoulders above her male co-stars, Bruce Greenwood is remotely next-in-line radiant with his curmudgeonly ambiguity, but ruefully, there is little is on offer. Regardless of its invigorating feminist angle of a less fluid story, Reichardt’s film seems to brandish her “anti” flag too willfully and what is ultimately sacrificed here is a culminating catharsis dissipates even before its tentative luring of actualization.