Meek’s Cutoff feels something like an oddity in the western genre, and I mean that in the best way possible. There’s no denying the western influences clearly embedded in its cinematic DNA; Kelly Reichardt’s fourth feature very much draws from that celluloid tradition, but she’s not telling a story about cowboys and Indians or marshals and outlaws. Meek’s Cutoff is a tale of survival in the frontier (maybe there’s an argument to be made that any western concerns itself with this element just by virtue of being a western), of facing the unknown in an untamed territory with naught but your friends to keep you company and your rifle to stave off harm.
More than that, it’s a contemplative, deliberately paced movie with a pinpointed destination, and it’s not in any hurry to get there. For some, that may sound unappealing, but to say that Meek’s Cutoff is a slow film isn’t to say that it’s a boring film. In point of fact it’s extremely compelling for all of its human drama as its cast of characters plod across the Oregon Trail in an unsettled, fledgling America. Allegedly, Meek’s Cutoff has a real historical basis– Stephen Meek, the movie’s namesake, was a very real trailblazer in the 1800s, and he did lead an ill-fated expedition through that state– but Reichardt only uses history as her inspiration instead of making it her purpose.
Meek’s Cutoff might be grounded in reality, but Reichardt isn’t reenacting the past; she’s instead speaking to issues of social and racial paranoia through reimagining real-life events. Here, a group of settlers led by the eponymous Meek (Bruce Greenwood) brave the wild and harsh Oregon desert to reach the trail of the title, and eventually civilization as well. They’re tired, they’re hungry, and consensus among them seems to be that Meek doesn’t know where he’s going or where they currently are; much of Meek’s Cutoff by consequence feels downright mutinous in its attitude, though that discontent simmers rather than roils. No one has the chutzpah to tell Meek exactly what they’re thinking– perhaps understandably, as he cuts a mythical frontier man figure. Who would have the gall to speak up to him?
The answer: None of the men. The lone voice of reason emanates from Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), wife to one of the males on the journey and notably more advanced as a human being than her fellow settlers. She and Meek come to develop a near-adversarial relationship, but more accurately it could just be called standoffish; she clearly bears contempt for Meek, who clearly doesn’t put much stock in her accusations or opinions however well-formed they may be. (And they are.) In a story so broad and even universal as this their conflict provides the film with a center, a point that the story inevitably comes back to time and time again as the circumstances of the settlers worsens.
Which it does. Meek appears to have taken the settlers off-course, though he denies it, and supplies are beginning to dwindle, particularly water. While at first the settlers aim to reach the safety and shelter of civilization, they quickly change gears and make it their goal just to find water– survival becomes paramount. Anxiety and distrust foments, until eventually the group has a run-in with a lone Indian; Meek quickly captures him, and through communicative difficulties enlist him as their guide to find water.
Unsurprisingly, the addition of this unknown quantity to their number only increases the rate at which the aforementioned nerves and suspicions rise. The Indian, for his part, plays nice outside of a few social faux-pas, but his presence divides the settlers; some believe the stranger is a savage intent on leading them into a trap, or delaying them long enough for his tribe to catch them; some put their faith in him and believe he means to lead them to their liquid salvation. The rest don’t truly invest themselves in the debate, but all of them remain dedicated enough to their shared purpose even as they speak their grievances out of earshot of others. (And then again, there are those who choose not to keep mum.)
Reichardt ratchets up tension slowly and infuses Meek’s Cutoff with small but rich details and slice-of-life moments that make up the fabric of her picture. It’s actually difficult to identify her primary purpose; does she mean Meek’s Cutoff to be a story about race relations, doubt, and in-fighting on open plains, or does she mean to fashion a rigorously authentic portrayal of life on the frontier? That question doesn’t present any difficulties for the film– there’s never a sense of confusion from Reichardt’s side of the camera– but rather opens it up for personal interpretation. In the end, whether it’s a genuine portrait of the settlers’ woes or a slow-burning story about their creeping doom, Meek’s Cutoff works effectively regardless of one’s personal takeaway.
Central to the film’s two distinct dilemmas are the performances of Williams and Greenwood, who both disappear into their roles and become their respective people– the latter, perhaps, more literally than the former. Greenwood is nigh-unrecognizable behind the gravelly tones and ferocious beard of Stephen Meek; Williams, on the other hand, stands out more but plays Emily Tetherow with a manner so subdued that she nevertheless sinks into her character fully. Meek’s Cutoff is littered with fine performances, but they’re minor roles; the film is much more about the interactions between Tetherow and Meek, and to a point the nameless Indian whose dialect we can’t understand. This certainly is a film about trailblazing and persevering in a hostile, unfamiliar landscape, and about putting trust in someone you fear, but it’s also a clash of morality between Meek, spiteful and unyielding, and Tetherow, a far kinder person who’s capable of evolving and learning, and Greenwood and Williams deftly carry their dispute as the journey further and further toward meeting their fate.
It’s ultimately that question of the unknown that makes Meek’s Cutoff such a standout in its genre. Reichardt eschews many traits prototypical of the western in favor of areas often unexplored by those films, and comes out the other side of her experiment with something that’s new and original and yet unquestionably belongs within that categorization. For western aficionados Meek’s Cutoff may represent a change of pace that’s hard to absorb at first glance, but it’s very much worth sticking with it to be rewarded with one of the year’s most striking pictures.