Film Review: Meek's Cutoff

Forget that old computer game you may have played in middle school: Kelly Reichardt’s fourth feature is a beautifully evocative portrait of life on the real Oregon Trail.

Meek’s Cutoff, the new film from Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy), opens with a three-family wagon train captained by self-described expert tracker Stephen Meek, lost in the Oregon wilderness sometime in the year 1845. When we leave them many miles and some 100-odd minutes later, they’re in the same predicament. Nothing has changed and yet everything has; the formerly united group—which consists of a widower (Will Patton) and his new wife (Michelle Williams), a devoutly religious family (Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff and Tommy Nelson) and a young married couple (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan)—is splintered perhaps beyond repair due to infighting and fear. Worse still, their resources are dwindling and with each passing day the landscape around them grows more inhospitable.

Meanwhile, the vainglorious Meek (played by Bruce Greenwood, barely recognizable behind an almost comically bushy beard) has been so thoroughly discredited that he’s abdicated his role as the expedition’s leader, admitting that he has no idea how to guide the group out of the morass his ill-informed decisions have led them into.

At this point, some in the audience might start to wonder whether the movie is actually about 19th-century America or an America of the far more recent past, say 2003. In interviews, Reichardt has made it clear that Meek’s Cutoff is intended to, in part, be viewed as a commentary on the country’s ongoing misadventure in Iraq, initiated by former president George W. Bush. The parallels are certainly hard to miss. Like Bush, Meek presents himself as a straight-talking guy who operates on gut instinct, although, more often than not, his gut leads him and those under his command into trouble. (It’s worth noting that Stephen Meek was an actual guide in 1840s Oregon, who really did lead a wagon train off the main trail and wound up lost in the high country, where many travelers perished before the remnants of the group found their way back to civilization. That path has since been christened—you guessed it—the Meek Cutoff.)

The families’ constant dithering over the right exit strategy is also reminiscent of a similar debate that played out for years in the nation’s mass media (and, undoubtedly, the Pentagon’s war room). And then there’s their general distrust and poor treatment of the area’s natives, the Cayuse tribe. When they unexpectedly come face-to-face with a lone Indian scout (Rod Rondeaux), they capture him and bicker over whether it’s best to kill him immediately or let him live long enough so that he can lead them to fresh water. Eventually, they opt for the latter course of action—over Meek’s strenuous objections—but apart from the widower’s self-possessed wife, none of them makes a serious effort to communicate with their prisoner, instead treating him as a stranger in his own land.

Truth be told, as allegory, Meek’s Cutoff is too heavy-handed at times. Screenwriter Jon Raymond has an unfortunate tendency to hammer home the movie’s larger ideas via overly pointed dialogue, and those false notes stand out because the rest of his script is appropriately spare and economical. Some of the supporting roles are also so thinly written and performed that they come across as thematically convenient types rather than fully rounded individuals. Kazan and Dano are particularly unconvincing as the nervous husband and wife who become increasingly certain the Cayuse scout is leading the entire wagon train into a massacre. Fortunately, their flat performances are balanced by strong turns from Williams, Patton, Greenwood and Rondeaux, who convincingly flesh out the characters Raymond sketches on the page.

If the Iraq War allusions are somewhat forced, as a new approach to a traditional western tale, Meek’s Cutoff is something special, with Reichardt handily accomplishing two feats that might have stymied another director. First, she’s managed to tell an epic story in an astonishingly intimate fashion. Secondly, she’s created a period piece that provides a tactile sense of the era it’s depicting. Both of these achievements stem in large part from her decision to film entirely on location—there isn’t a single interior in the entire movie—relying almost exclusively on natural light. She also paces the film to reflect the rhythms of camp life; scenes linger on the cast performing such menial but essential tasks as starting the morning fire, scrubbing pots and pans and fixing a broken wagon axle.

Shooting in the old Academy standard aspect ratio of 1:33—as opposed to ultra-wide 2.35—Reichardt’s camera captures the majestic sweep of the Oregon country, but ensures that the weary faces of these pilgrims always occupy the center of the frame. She also makes striking use of point-of-view; for example, all of the conversations between Meek and the patriarchs of the three families are filmed from afar, forcing us to eavesdrop on their negotiations along with their wives (who, as women, naturally aren’t privy to the decision-making process). The end result is a film that’s positively transporting, one that immerses you in a way of life long since vanished without feeling like a dry history lesson.