We’re all just playing our parts now. This was written long before we got here.
—dialogue from Meek’s Cutoff
“A road movie without the road” reads, in part, the tagline to Kelly Reichardt’s debut feature, River of Grass (1994), a screwball neo-Breathless about a bored housewife and a hapless momma’s boy on the run for a crime they only think they’ve committed, going nowhere fast. If one doesn’t typically look to throwaway ad copy for its piercing critical acumen, it’s nevertheless worth noting that the notion of a roadless road movie applies equally well to Reichardt’s subsequent Old Joy (2006), Wendy and Lucy (2008), and now Meek’s Cutoff, in which the characters travel the mighty Oregon Trail but more often than not seem to be moving in circles. That the year is 1845 means Meek’s Cutoff is Reichardt’s first foray into period storytelling; it is also her first film made in 35mm and with a seven-figure budget. Those factors, plus the presence of a name cast, will doubtless lead to certain pronouncements that Reichardt has made her “breakthrough” or “crossover” movie, no matter that such considerations are virtually meaningless when applied to Reichardt, who was long ago courted by—and washed her hands of—the Hollywood machine, and who seems as untroubled by considerations of box office or industry accolades as any filmmaker at work in the US today.
Indeed, it is far more useful to approach Meek’s Cutoff not as an aberration but rather as a continuation and deepening of ideas raised by Reichardt’s three previous features and their emphasis on outsider characters traversing parts of the old, weird America that seem (like the characters themselves) to be disappearing even as Reichardt is filming them. Written by Jon Raymond, who also collaborated with Reichardt on Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy (both adapted from his short stories), Meek’s Cutoff announces from its ravishing opening scene that this is also one of those rare Westerns, like Man of the West (1958) or Ulzana’s Raid (1972), more indebted to the harsh realities of the West—both physical and psychological—than to the mythology of so much Western fiction. We see a small caravan of covered wagons fording a river across the lower third of the 1.33:1 frame (the extraordinary, natural-light cinematography is by newcomer Chris Blauvelt), while the densely layered sound design (by Leslie Shatz) provides a surfeit of the landscape’s chirps, rustles, and splashes. The crossing is slow and arduous—and this is not even a particularly wide or deep river.
The rest of the film’s early moments are devoted to similarly immersive, expressive detail: the crunching of the dry, coarse earth under the wagons’ splintering wheels; the infinitesimal smallness of people against the stark expanse of the land; finally, a hint of narrative in the appearance of a single word, “lost,” carved into a tree’s barren trunk. It is nearly ten minutes into Meek’s Cutoff before the first intelligible dialogue is spoken—and even then, there is the feeling that these people speak only when it is necessary, and in as few words as possible. They are tired, and words require energy. This much we know: that the caravan consists of three families, the Tetherows (played by Wendy and Lucy co-stars Michelle Williams and Will Patton), the Gatelys (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan), and the Whites (Shirley Henderson and Neal Huff), who are accompanied by their pre-teen son. They have been heading West towards Oregon’s Willamette Valley for an unspecified amount of time, under the guidance of one Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a flamboyantly grizzled, self-aggrandizing guide who claims to know the land like the back of his hand, but whose credentials—and motives—are, perhaps too late, called into question. Under the crackle of campfire, whispered voices ponder whether Meek may in fact have been hired by the British to lead American settlers to their death, this being three years before the founding of the Oregon Territory, when the Pacific Northwest was still very much wild and up for grabs.
There was a real Stephen Hall Meek, a fur trapper, surveyor, and sometimes mercenary who, in 1845, led a train of some 200 wagons bound for Oregon. The “cutoff” of the movie’s title refers to a shortcut chosen by Meek for its more direct route across the centre of the state. Beginning their journey in late August, the Meek party soon found this route bereft of one essential provision, water, save for some stagnant pools deemed unfit for human or animal consumption. (In Reichardt’s film, this mounting despair is distilled into the succinct visual metaphor of the ever lower water line inside a single wooden barrel.) By the time Meek’s wagons arrived in The Dalles that October, at least two dozen travellers had succumbed to starvation and disease—events selectively omitted from Meek’s deathbed memoir, published in 1885.
Working from the historical record (mostly in the form of diaries kept by the travellers, including future Oregon legislator Samuel Parker), Reichardt and Raymond have constructed a narrative that is at once spare yet highly faithful—an organizing principle that extends to the work of production designer David Doernberg and costume designer Victoria Farrell. In its approach to reconstructing period, Meek’s Cutoff shares some of the same hallowed ground occupied by Lancelot du lac (1974), The Marquise of O (1976), and the films of Peter Watkins, triumphs of verisimilitude over embellishment. And, as in all of Reichardt’s work, it is this very scrupulous attention to the specifics of time and place that belies a series of larger concerns—in the case of Meek’s Cutoff, a consideration of immigration, Manifest Destiny, and what it means to be “a real American” that seems to reach across the centuries all the way to the age of Homeland Security and the “foreign-born” President. Not that Reichardt’s precise yet mysterious work can be so easily reduced. Indeed, the further this director goes in her investigation of the land of the supposedly free, the more her films seem to resist interpretation—thus Wendy and Lucy is either a simple story of a girl and her dog or a devastating rebuke to Bush-era America and a bellwether of the financial crisis, depending on what you want to see in it.
Meek’s Cutoff turns, as Westerns so often do, on the white man’s encounter with an Indian, a Cayuse captured by Meek (“Even Indians despise these Indians”) and subjected to a tough interrogation—to little avail, since neither party speaks a word of the other’s tongue. Eventually, an agreement seems to be forged by which the Indian will lead the travellers to water in exchange for somewhat more dignified treatment. But even then, we can’t be sure whether the Indian is taking them to their salvation, their doom, or if he is just as lost as they are. (“You people have no idea what you’re dealing with here,” bellows an indignant Meek, spouting the eerily familiar rhetoric of those who seek authority through the manipulation of fear.) Among other things, this may be the most humane depiction of an Indian ever in a Western, one in which the native is neither savage nor holy man nor catch-all symbol of American imperialism, but merely (though hardly simply) an unknowable Other unwittingly caught up in this damned voyage. In perhaps the film’s most impressive scene, a plucky Mrs. Tetherow offers her sewing skills to mend the Cayuse’s torn moccasin, much to the dismay of the skittish Mrs. Gately. It is a scene Reichardt offers not as an example of the white man’s charity or the Indian’s pride, but rather as a simple utilitarian act among two people allied in a bid for survival—a scene to make A Man Called Horse (1970) and Dances with Wolves (1990) seem even grander folly by comparison. Then they trudge forth once more, towards a vanishing horizon and an ending as open as the plains are vast.