We meet them first crossing a fairly wide river. The men leading wagons drawn by heavy Oxen, nearly sinking below the river’s surface as they trudge along. The women carrying baskets above their heads as the water raises past their waist. They cross the river, and it is back to the harsh and unforgiving landscape of the Oregon Trail, where this small band of pioneers battle the onslaught of nature’s cruelest setting: nothingness. There are three married couples, a child, and their leader, a grizzly-bearded enigma named Stephen Meek. They are one of countless wagon trains that set out west in the 1800s on their way to finding the fortune they’ve heard about so many times. But this land will not allow them to pass as easy as they would like. Dissention grows among the travelers. Some fear they are lost; others know they are.
Meek’s Cutoff is a meditative, deliberately isolated Western, a story about a journey that begins to test the will of those involved (and is now on Netflix Instant). I still don’t quite know what to make of the film itself, except that it is quite brave in its execution and its dedication to simple observation. These travelers have put their faith in Stephen Meek, played by Bruce Greenwood in a beard and hair that practically covers his entire face. Meek boasts of his accomplishments and his knowledge of the unseen west, but many in the party begin to question his certainty. The most suspicious of the travelers is Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), married to Solomon (Will Patton). Emily is certain they will run out of water before they find any more. The other party members include William and Glory White (Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson), a younger couple, Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan), and a young boy, Tommy (Jimmy White).
But the biggest character in Meek’s Cutoff is the merciless landscape. The travelers endure heat, cold, and barren isolation. The wind blows consistently, throbbing against the soundtrack like an oppressive and unseen force. Director Kelly Reichardt (who worked with Williams on Wendy and Lucy last year) shot the film in the narrow 1:1.33 aspect ratio, not in widescreen. This squared-off vision pushes the cast away from the screen in the standard long and medium shots used throughout. You can feel the desperate trek unraveling with every cumbersome step. And the steps seem never ending. As the men meet to discuss whether or not Meek is leading them astray, we stay with the women as they strain to hear the conversation. This is a rarity in the genre as Reichardt focuses primarily on the women hidden deep beneath their bonnets and covered from head to toe in prairie dresses that look and feel like they must be a hundred pounds apiece. The new perspectiveis perhaps the most interesting technique of screenwriter Jonathan Raymond.
The pioneers capture an Indian that had been stalking them for several miles, and his fate is divided among the group. Meek lobbies to kill him on site, but Solomon uses a clearer head. The Indian is obviously in good shape, is healthy, so he must know where there is water. They try and coax help from the Indian, Meek with violence and the others with more diplomatic means of trade and favors. The Indian brings about more division and truly exposes the inexperience of these white travelers. But remember, this is no conventional western. The Indian is calm, inward, and there is very little desire by Reichardt to show any developing lines of communication. Because this would likely be the case. These people are foreign to this man, and vice versa, and there is no existing line of trust. Attempting to build communication patterns would prove to be fruitless because, without the trust, who knows what is true and what is a trap?
I found myself longing for a resolution to one or more of the conflicts in the end. But the lack of closure also feels like the only true end to the story. The performances hit their marks with precision, and not once was I not immersed in the plight of these characters. Still, as I bat the events of this picture back and forth in my head, it feels lacking to my sensibilities. I wouldn’t ask for a nice, tidy bow at the end of the film because the falsity of such an end would destroy everything that had come before it. I would have been satisfied with an end to at least one of the means, however. Meek’s Cutoff feels less like a narrative film in the truest sense, and more like a segment of historical text. For this, I find no real reason in handing out a letter grade. Any sort of grade would undercut the deliberate non-structure of the film itself.