By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 12:00 PM
Since the writing-directing team of Jon Raymond and Kelly Reichardt released its breakout film "Old Joy" five years ago, its movies have proved astute, emotionally powerful alternatives to the product as usual that dominates theaters.
Raymond and Reichardt's coming film, "Meek's Cutoff," opening in April, is no exception. A Western set on the Oregon Trail in 1845, the film stars Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano as settlers on their way to build new lives in the Pacific Northwest. An unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood plays their guide, Stephen Meek, who, while insisting he knows the best way through the Cascade Mountains, seems increasingly to be sending the group to its doom.
Methodical, poetic and spare, "Meek's Cutoff" evinces Reichardt's signature gift for filming people against a natural landscape that becomes a character in itself. As the somber band makes its way across the harsh expanse of the high desert, the film becomes less a narrative than a cinematic trance. In a nod to the classic Westerns of Anthony Mann, William Wellman and Howard Hawks, Reichardt filmed "Meek's Cutoff" using the 1:33 aspect ratio that renders the image nearly square.
As she explained when she presented the film at the Sundance Film Festival last month, that pictorial device had practical advantages for a script that entailed its share of surprises and sudden revelations. "When you're in the desert and you can see 40 miles in front of you in every direction, it's very hard to be taken aback by something," she said.
But the square frame had deeper philosophical implications as well. If she had filmed the settlers' arduous journey in widescreen, she said, the audience would be able to project the past and the future on to the protagonists. "The square just really helped keep me in the moment with them," she said.
Raymond, a novelist who lives in Portland, Ore., explained that he came up with the idea for "Meek's Cutoff" when he was researching Oregon history while working on a branding campaign for a new development at the height of the real estate boom. "One of the stranger jobs I had was naming a golf course in Bend, Oregon," Raymond said at Sundance. "I came across this story of Meek's Cutoff which, it turns out, is one of the more famous episodes in the early Oregon Trail. . . . [The pioneers] really did hire this guy Stephen Meek to guide them across the mountains, and they did actually get lost in the desert out there and they did question themselves: Is this guy leading us stupid or evil?"
The allegorical whiffs are unmistakable in "Meek's Cutoff," from the hubris of Manifest Destiny and fear of the Other to the enduring tension between individual freedom and collective responsibility. Mostly, though, it's a welcome portrait of the grit, courage and perseverance of the women who were so often marginalized or missing in the heroic Westerns of yore. "Meek's Cutoff" is revisionist in the best sense of that word, giving audiences a new way to see the past and, quite possibly, the present.