(No longer in theaters)
Apr 8, 2011
There are recognizable human forms in the first section of Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, but nothing in the way of individuals. It’s 1845 (as a quaintly embroidered title card reveals), and a wagon train is making its slow way west on the Oregon Trail. You hear not voices but the snorting of horses, the squeaking of wheels, the clanking of pans … birds … insects … the wind in the dry grass. Over the next half-hour, the characters emerge, and because their faces have been withheld for so long you might start to get excited when you figure out who’s who. You might even think, “These people are so real.” It’s an impressive piece of arthouse flimflam.
No, the con isn’t conscious—I don’t think Reichardt believes she’s anything but a visionary. Meek’s Cutoff is being widely celebrated as a unique female perspective on American white-male expansionism, and it certainly aims to be. Michelle Williams, star of Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, crosses her arms and stares out from under her bonnet in obvious disapproval at the bushy blowhard Buffalo Bill wannabe Meek, who I thought was Dennis Quaid but turned out to be Bruce Greenwood. He gets them allegorically lost, whereupon they encounter a lone Cayuse Native American (Ron Rondeaux), whom they allegorically capture and beat and tie up while Williams watches silently. You know she’s going to be the one to bring him food and water and then intervene to try to keep him from harm—but this is the kind of movie in which there are long, arty stretches between clichés.
For all its indirection, Meek’s Cutoff is an utterly conventional film. But it’s worth asking whether Reichardt’s drowsy rhythms, stripped-down scenario, and female vantage (which extends to her choice of a square, constricted frame instead of one more Pana-visual) add up to something illuminating. And here’s where she earns at least some of those plaudits she’s been getting. With the help of Leslie Shatz’s sound design and Chris Blauvelt’s inspired use of available light (or lack thereof), the settlers’ alienation from the natural landscape stays with you long after the movie ends. American mythologists like to talk about the sturdy “pioneer spirit,” but Reichardt’s westward-ho is a world of confusion, geographical and moral, a dislocation beyond the remedy of water or Bibles.