FILM A few wordless minutes into Meek’s Cutoff, we see a boy carving the word “LOST” into a log. You know then that Kelly Reichardt has made another movie about being stranded in America, this one a neorealist western. The year is 1845, and a three-wagon caravan is crossing the hardscrabble northwestern plains en route to the Willamette. The families have hired the rogue guide Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to show them the way, but he’s only got them low on water. The place we now call Oregon remains contested territory. There are dire murmurs that Meek may be a British agent, purposefully leading American settlers astray; Meek redirects this unease toward the prospect of race war. When the group captures a Cayuse man (Rod Rondeaux), the guide advocates hanging. Sanguine Solomon (Will Patton) maintains that they should keep him on to find water.
The distant shots of the men deliberating their best route — patent guesswork — could be from any of the three women’s perspectives, but we have little doubt the attentiveness belongs to Solomon’s wife Emily (Michelle Williams, reprising her role as Reichardt’s moral center). Millie (Zoe Kazan) is young and weak-minded (she falls prey to Meek’s fear-mongering); Glory (Shirley Henderson) is pious, pregnant, and reluctant to accept charity. Emily is skeptical of the wisdom of men.
Meek’s Cutoff is in large part about Emily’s being brought to action — first to try to earn the Indian’s trust by mending his moccasin, and second by holding Meek at gunpoint when he aims to fulfill his blood lust. Unlike the Indians in classical “progressive” westerns like Broken Arrow (1950), the Cayuse does not prove himself as the noble embodiment of liberal values. He remains wholly Other, and any perceived alignment with Emily is ultimately incommensurable. The film offers a clear moral preference for Emily’s stand, but Reichardt and screenwriter Jon Raymond’s loose chain of scenes — one imagines them as chapters with plainly descriptive titles, as in 19th century novels — neither rewards nor punishes such conviction.
After working with different cinematographers on each of her previous features, Reichardt has found a keeper in Chris Blauvelt: the slow, nearly psychedelic dissolves, distant views of riders approaching and lamp-lit conversations burnish this film with a newfound compositional integrity. Reichardt’s expressive sound design (a squeaky wheel is practically a character) and knack for staging muffled performances remain in evidence, but not everything works so well in Meek’s Cutoff. In particular, the title character’s transformation from charismatic braggart to hateful sociopath feels roughshod. By the time Emily has him at gunpoint, the scales have tipped. She’s too brave by half, and his monstrousness is similarly overstretched.
Yet one forgives this narrative convenience because Reichardt in other ways acknowledges the difficulty of mounting a western with a female protagonist. Gone are the telling gestures, close-ups, and music cues glinting through Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008); the oblique camera style shies away even from the minor pleasures of detail. These things have everything to do with the film’s torn attitude toward the genre: one in which key dualities of wilderness-civilization and individual-community are resolved by the arrival of a man who knows how and why to use a gun.
Williams submerges into the role as she did with Wendy, another marooned pilgrim, projecting tense defiance rather than magical iconography. Reichardt and Raymond cast the ideal of heroism still further adrift from any notion of destiny in their stand-still plotting of scenes. Meek’s Cutoff may be the antithesis of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — instead of a fantasy of fatherly love slicing through a postapocalyptic nowhere, here we have the struggle for the soul of a fragile community that may not survive, but is liable to be remembered.
MEEK’S CUTOFF opens Fri/6 in Bay Area theaters.