Wagon train flies off the rails
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, May 20, 2011
The director Kelly Reichardt (“Old Joy,” “Wendy and Lucy”) deconstructs, de-mythologizes and thoroughly redefines the American western with “Meek’s Cutoff,” a mesmerizing cinematic journey that is often as arduous and spare as the lives of its hard-bitten protagonists.
On the Oregon Trail in 1845, a group of settlers crosses a swollen creek, carefully leading oxen and slowly hand-carrying their belongings to the other side. The action is wordless, grim and carried out with uncomplaining stoicism. The immigrants, three families, are led by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a guide who has assured them that he knows of a shortcut through the Cascade Mountains. Meek’s a brash big-talker, but a trip that he assured them would take two weeks has now lengthened into five. Once past that creek, Thomas Gately (Paul Dano), who is moving west with his young wife, Millie (Zoe Kazan), carves the word “LOST” into a lone piece of wood.
On the festival circuit, where “Meek’s Cutoff” has been received by rapturous reviews, Reichardt and her collaborator, screenwriter Jon Raymond, have called the Gatelys the “Yuppie couple” of the group, their youthful materialism signified by the caged canary they gingerly carry along. By contrast, the White family — played by Shirley Henderson and Neal Huff, with Tommy Nelson as their son — hews fast to Scripture, their vision of the future fired by a sense of messianic fervor. Keeping their own counsel are Emily and Solomon Tetherow (Michelle Williams, Will Patton), a middle-aged couple with few illusions about what awaits them or whether they’ll even get there. Her eyes narrowed to suspicious slits beneath her battered bonnet, Emily evinces particular mistrust of Meek and the braggadocio that’s led them to the middle of the hot high plains with no visible way to what he grandiloquently calls “a second Eden.”
In its scope, pacing and detail, “Meek’s Cutoff” subverts nearly every trope of conventional Hollywood westerns and, in the process, winds up being all the more pure and ambitious. Chronicling just a few days in the group’s journey, Raymond and Reichardt don’t weigh the proceedings down with back story or expository dialogue. Rather, they allow action to express the tedium, tenacity and once-strong optimism that recedes with every dusty footstep. Like the best historical fiction, “Meek’s Cutoff” immerses viewers in the rhythms and material culture of the era, with fascinating tableaux of people simply going about their work, whether it’s Emily Tetherow baking bread and grinding coffee or systematically loading and firing a rifle — a laborious process that gives the lie to so many fetishized scenes of gunplay that have gone before. (Raymond’s script was based in large part on the diaries of Oregon Trail settlers, some of whom were indeed guided by a man named Stephen Meek.)
If “Meek’s Cutoff” dispenses with the most cherished western cliches, it’s by no means devoid of narrative tension. As the settlers slog their way through the playa, it becomes increasingly unclear whether, as one speculates, Meek is crazy or just plain evil (at one point someone wonders if he was hired to do away with immigrants from the East). When the group encounters and abducts an Indian (Rod Rondeaux), the suspense ratchets up considerably, with the skeptical Emily fixing the Native American’s boot, not out of liberal beneficence but, as she says, because “I want him to owe me something.”
Myriad archetypal American impulses and present-day resonances play out through “Meek’s Cutoff,” which Raymond wrote at the height of the Iraq War and partially intended as an allegory of xenophobia and imperial folly. But he and Reichardt delicately underplay the subtext, building on the bones of the story and its players with a minimum of fuss and adornment. With its long takes of bleak vistas and slowly moving wagon trains, “Meek’s Cutoff” portrays the West not as the terrain of idealized myth but as a place of wind, salt, paranoia and despair.
And yet, “Meek’s Cutoff” also offers a new brand of screen heroism, in a vibrant, plainspoken portrait of sacrifice and steely resolve in the face of unimaginable hardship. Reichardt, best known until now for vivid regionalist depictions of the contemporary Pacific Northwest, has created a masterpiece of American genre, a poetic tour de force whose power lies, not in pyrotechnics or posturing but an honesty every bit as forthright and gutsy as Emily Tetherow herself.
Contains mild violent content, brief language.