At one point in Meek’s Cutoff, set in 1845, the frontier settler played by the excellent, plain-spoken Michelle Williams fires two warning shots after an alarming encounter with a Native American. Hurriedly she loads the rifle with gunpowder and ammunition, while director Kelly Reichardt observes the action from a patient, fixed middle-distance vantage point. It takes a good while — precisely as long as it would in real life, in this circumstance. Reichardt cuts away only after Williams’ character, Emily, discharges the rifle a second time.
If you allow its windswept silences to work on you, Meek’s Cutoff gathers its own snakelike sense of momentum, as the people on screen make their way across the high-plains desert en route to the Cascade Mountains (they hope) and the West Coast. The film observes characters under duress. It doesn’t bother explaining them much. Nor does it concern itself with the usual boilerplate exposition about where they’re coming from and what dreams they have for the future.
Director Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt have made a Western, by loose definition. I suppose you could call it a feminist Western, though that label suggests an anachronistically righteous revision of history, rather than the evocative reframing Reichardt achieves.
The screenwriter Jon Raymond, who worked on HBO’s Mildred Pierce, puts terse, authentic-sounding argot in the mouths of these settlers, female and male, three families traveling together in three covered wagons, guided by the unreliable, unruly mountain man and trail guide played wonderfully by Bruce Greenwood. When someone relays an anecdote about a discussion between Meek (Greenwood) and the menfolk and says, “Well, Meek got to talkin’...” Emily counters with a dismissive: “’Course he did.” The one who talks the most can be trusted least.
Meek’s Cutoff completes an informal Oregon trilogy of Reichardt’s, which began with Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy (astutely judged modern-day tales of those living on, or in, the margins). The film spends much of its screen time watching the women, largely silent but critically engaged in every life-and-death decision. We watch as they watch their husbands negotiate the next step with the man who may be the death of them all. Emily’s husband, played by Will Patton, emerges as the most sympathetic and intuitive of the men, more willing (like Emily) to question Meek’s authority than the others.
Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan play the other women; Paul Dano and Neal Huff, the other men. The captured Native American is portrayed by Rod Rondeaux, a long-time horse trainer and stuntman. As with her previous films, Reichardt does little to amp up the confrontations in Meek’s Cutoff. The film is not for the frantic of spirit. Its steady rhythm and even-handed tone threaten occasionally to stultify. But little things mean a lot in this universe, as they should. Everything in the movies suggests otherwise; usually only big things mean anything. Reichardt, by nature, stays closer to the ground and to figures ordinarily sidelined. When disasters strike, or simply another difficult day on the trail comes to an end, we’re back with the women and their families and the oxen, preparing for nightfall and another dawn.