There are many ways to describe what is happening onscreen during Kelly Reichardt’s terrific new film “Meek’s Cutoff,” but every time I try and include them here, it feels dismissive. The film could easily be called “meditative,” but it’s much more than that. Or you could call it a “low-fi Terrence Malick film,” but that’s too lazy. After wracking my brain the best I could come up with is describing “Meek’s Cutoff” as a pioneering procedural that manages to sink into your bones to the point where you feel along for the God-awful ride across desolate Oregon.
When the camera introduces us to the pioneers in question, they’re making their way across rough terrain. The sound design in the film immediately draws you in as every clank, bump and squeak of the wooden wagon wheel becomes part of the soundtrack that trundles around in your head. They stop for water before trudging (and I do mean trudging) onward. They are dirty, exhausted and from early indications, totally lost. Yet the viewer never knows who these people are or really, where they’re going. All we know is they’re pushing forth against increasingly difficult odds.
After what feels like an abnormally long time, we start to meet some of the characters in the wagon train. Thomas and Millie Gately (Dano and Kazan) are a young couple who have some spunk that the road hasn’t quite dragged out of them and Glory and William (Henderson and Huff) White are the father and mother of the group as they keep up appearances and hard work, keeping it together for their young son Jimmy. Then there’s the Tetherow’s, Emily and Solomon (Patton and Williams) who are the defacto leaders of the group and who also show the most personality and perseverance out of anyone. Oh yes, and there’s also their humble leader, Stephen Meek (Greenwood) who looks like a runner-up in a Wild Bill Hickok contest and who also, by all apparent suspicions and boisterous bragging, has no clue how to lead a wagon train into unknown territory. While we may not know what exactly is going on, we do know early on that Mr. Meek is full of s**t.
Throughout “Meek’s Cutoff” we don’t know where these people are going and there’s no exposition that explains how they got into their mess. A quick google search shows that the Meek Cutoff is a real trail that branched off of the Oregon Trail and was obviously named for Stephen Meek. But that’s not covered in the film. All we know is these people are lost, filthy, tired, frustrated and running out of water. When I describe the film as a procedural, it’s because every day-to-day hardship these folks endure is shown is painfully slow and vivid detail. Every day seems the same with long hours of raveling, sleeping in sad tents and rising before the sun to grind coffee, make bread and do it all again. If a wagon part breaks, it’s not like they can run down to the nearest auto-parts store. The whole wagon train stops and they set to work fixing it the best they can. It’s grueling, tedious work and the audience is there almost every step on the way. It more than bears mentioning that the women in the film are doing almost all of that hard work but this doesn’t feel like a feminist take on pioneering, at least not totally.
“Meek’s Cutoff” is a s-l-o-w movie but I didn’t mind that much as it drew me into this journey and made me feel as though I were there. The only issue I have is an odd one and has to do with the outstanding cast Reichardt has assembled. The film is an odd, slow, meandering affair and the need for “fantastic” acting just isn’t there. I found Dano and Kazan good but almost distracting and it bugged me that I constantly felt reminded Michelle Williams doesn’t look like Michelle Williams. The cast is great and that kind of took me out of it. However Bruce Greenwood as the verbose, salt-of-the-earth Meek had just enough ham in his performance to give the film a little contrast and I appreciated what he brought to the table.
What I loved best about “Meek’s Cutoff” and in truth, all of Reichardt’s work thus far, is how amorphous her thematic elements and subtext are. While on the surface, “Old Joy” was about long lost buddies on a hiking trip, underneath that there was all sorts of undercurrents swimming around. “Wendy and Lucy” is by all means a tale of a down on her luck girl who loses her dog, but the allegories about current attitudes in America are as intriguing as those about interpersonal relations. “Meek’s Cutoff” hit home for me because there are things in your life I want and can kind of see ahead of me, but I’m just not sure how to get there. Maybe you take a shortcut that gets you lost but do you keep on? These settlers and their trek resonated with me on a personal level for sure. There’s also a general feeling I got from “Meek’s Cutoff” that the story is an allegory for America both in the settler days and now as we try and cope with the middle east. There’s much to parse in Reichardt’s work and I’m a big fan. For me “Meek’s Cutoff” is another excellent film by an outstanding writer/director.