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Film Review: Meek’s Cutoff

Meek’s Cutoff (2010; Directed by Kelly Reichardt)

There’s a masterfully gradual visual dissolve early in this lovely mirage of an existential western that is an elegant metaphor for its thematic thrust: a static wide shot of the beautifully stark hills of Oregon transitions to a small wagon train traversing an open scrubland meadow. The plane of the scrub in the second shot is slowly superimposed on the distant line of clouds behind a ridge in the first shot, so that when the dissolve begins it appears for a few desultory seconds as if the horses, mules, oxen, wagons, and ragged people leading them are moving through the sky like dissolute Apollos astride decrepit chariots. It’s a quietly striking illusion to commence a quietly striking film.

Three little maids from school are we, filled to the brim with girlish glee...

Directed by indie auteur Kelly Reichardt and based on the historic hardship of real-life pioneers blazing one branch of the Oregon Trail, Meek’s Cutoff follows the lead of most westerns of the past couple of decades, which in turn took their cues from the cynical defamiliarizing approach of filmmakers like Cassavetes and Sergio Leone, who stripped the genre of the patriotic conservative political ideology that animated its classic Hollywood iterations through the 1940s and ’50s. A classic western likely would have treated the wilderness-hardened wagon train guide Stephen Meek (played with wily crustiness by an unrecognizably hirsute Bruce Greenwood) as a rugged masculine hero or at least a grizzled anti-hero in the late-period John Wayne mold. Reichardt’s film (from a script by Jonathan Raymond) renders him as an unreliable narrator who never narrates except in vague assurances of local geographic knowledge and in dubious anecdotes, a mercurial Coyote figure leading a band of increasingly desperate migrants towards an uncertain fate.

Reichardt and Raymond understand the plight of their characters, one of largely aimless trudging forward into the unknown, towards half-dreamed goals and aspirations that may never materialize out of the hazy western light, as that of all men and women in all times. Even as the period detail and dialogue establish a historical specificity, the dreamy long takes and gnomic utterances of the characters reassert the eternal and the ineffable. The dominant tone of the small questing group is of doubt; doubt in Meek’s expertise, sense of direction, and overall trustworthiness, doubt in themselves and their decisions, doubt in the inscrutable Native (Ron Rondeaux) that they forcibly conscript as a guide.

Hell is full of bears, but there are no bears here.

And although there is plenty of the outward religious expression of mid-nineteenth-century America amongst the wagon train pioneers, the subtext of all of this doubt is ultimately spiritual. Like Moses and the Israelites, Meek’s band soldier on through a virtual desert towards a much-discussed promised land of bubbling water and towering mountains. We know from recorded history that Meek and a remnant of his much-larger party completed their journey and at least some of them survived it, but Reichardt and Raymond provide the group’s quest with a truncated conclusion beneath a half-living, half-dead tree which may promise salvation or simply tease with its possibility. Meek talks a great deal about Hell, about all the things one finds there (bears and Indians, mostly, evidently), and it begins to sound increasingly as if that’s exactly where he’s leading them, and that he’s eager to get there.

Greenwood’s Meek is the key figure of this movie’s text and its subtext, and he’s excellent, a weirdly magnetic muttering mass of growling hair and creaking buckskin, like Buffalo Bill gone to wild seed. He recedes a bit as the plot, such as it is, progresses, privileging instead the wary interactions between Rondeaux’s Indian (the solemn gravity of his face is undeniable) and the cast’s main big name, Michelle Williams, as the determined wife of the train’s defacto alpha male, Solomon (Will Patton).

As formidable an actress as Williams has proven herself to be over the past few years, she’s all wrong for this setting. Try as she might to assimilate the anachronisms of nineteenth-century American English, the precocious modern timbre of her voice cannot be erased. She is persistently not in the proper epoch, and it distracts from what is an otherwise uniformly well-acted, magnificently-shot, and thematically-balanced film about our common human existence as a sort of aimless wandering in search of a never-ending frontier.

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