It might be best for the average filmgoer to approach Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, Meek’s Cutoff (which rounds out a trilogy that includes her previous films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy), as more of a snapshot than as an actual film. The glorious full frame parameters of the film’s theatrical exhibition certainly lends to the feeling that one is really watching a series of still images running by at a rapid pace (and really, that’s just the essence of cinema to begin with). The vast expanses of the untamed American West are shown not only through the sparse style of Reichardt, but through the narrow motives of the characters contained within Jonathan Raymond’s screenplay. Reichardt’s feminist, or dare one say humanist, deconstruction of the westward expansion might not break any new historical ground (and to the film’s credit it does not try to), but for cinephiles there are many joys to be discovered.
As the film opens the audience is introduced to a band of immigrants making their way across the sagebrush in 1845 en route to Oregon. Some are travelling for a better life, while others are tempted by the lure of gold and riches. Even before a word of dialog is uttered, it is quite apparent that these travellers are in dire straits. Their guide, Meek (Bruce Greenwood), could be a brilliant leader who can help them in the long run, an egomaniacal imbecile who got them all lost, or a man hired by the federal government of the United States to make sure they never make it out of the badlands alive. Their situation is compounded by their very basic need for water and the threat of an implied retaliation by the native population unhappy with being massacred and mistreated in the name of progress. After discovering a native who may have been tracking their progress, the travellers are torn between Meek`s advice to kill the man or the thoughts of the soft spoken Solomon (Will Patton) who believes this man may be the only chance they have at finding water.
The feminist aspect of Meek’s Cutoff being lauded within the film community comes mainly in the form of Solomon’s wife, Emily (Michelle Williams) who is torn between her own bigoted (yet period accurate) personal beliefs, her duty to her husband, her distrust of Meek, and her own will to survive. Williams’ performance is a bit of a high wire act. She needs to convey fear and exhaustion without ever once appearing meek and serving as the surrogate for the onscreen audience. Williams is truly the backbone of the film which is held in place by Raymond’s thoughtful script, Reichardt’s appropriately rambling style of direction, and some wonderful supporting performances.
Filmgoers looking for easy answers, a big climax or any sort of catharsis would best look elsewhere, but more patient and thoughtful viewers will have a lot to chew on long after the film has ended. Meek’s Cutoff has a lot to say about the futility of progress in the face of oppression. The film’s feminist message isn’t tempered through the character of Emily alone, but through also showing how men can act as agents of their own destruction. Meek describes women as agents of chaos, but from that chaos comes an undeniable amount of clarity.
The film can be analyzed endlessly for what it doesn’t expressly imply. Reichardt seems to share the same love of long, wordless takes that Terrence Malick is often praised for perfecting, but unlike Malick’s focus on external surroundings, Reichardt places the actors front and centre at almost every turn. By cropping the picture to the smallest theatrical exhibition ratio possible, she forces the audience to pay attention to facial expressions and body language to imply emotion rather than spelling it out. The Old West has never been this claustrophobic and rarely as well realized on screen.
Meek’s Cutoff screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto starting on Friday, May 13. It opens in Vancouver on Friday, May 20.
Cast: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Bruce Greenwood
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt