Our orientation is stitched into the canvas that appears in place of a traditional title card: Oregon, 1845. A small wagon train carrying three families and their hirsute, tasseled dandy of a guide traverses a landscape that undulates off in every which direction with little to recommend one route over the other. Crossing rivers and moving down hills is arduous and slow. In a memorable, inexplicably moving early scene, a pregnant woman chases her errant bonnet, hooked by the wind, as it snakes across the cracked earth. Daily chores, such as cooking, washing clothes, scrubbing dishes, and repairing cartwheels, are most often undertaken in silence. One image of travel gives way to the next in a dissolve so slow it’s like time has fallen asleep. The first word expressed by any of the characters isn’t spoken aloud (it daren’t be; not yet) but carved into a dead tree: LOST.
Which is about the best one-word summation one could find to characterize the films of Kelly Reichardt, one of the finest, most distinctive, most resourceful contemporary American filmmakers. A sense of having lost one’s way presses up against the margins of her earlier features, River of Grass, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. Here, in Meek’s Cutoff, her most elaborate and ambitious production, her most dramatic narrative, her first period piece, and a western of sorts, one seen mainly through the eyes of women who have little say in their destinies, that sense of being lost drives the entire film, in so much as you can call the film “driven.” Sparely scripted, like Reichardt’s previous two features, by Oregon author Jonathan Raymond, its momentum is quiet, its tensions simmer a long while, its dangers are clearly mortal but most often latent, waiting. There’s much at stake, but its desperation is conveyed judiciously. It’s a gorgeously coloured, immersive film, pierced through with the sort of historical detail rarely highlighted, and with political undercurrents that imbue it with a timelessness.
The hopeful settlers are moving through the Oregon High Desert. As the film begins the group already suspects that their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) may not know where he’s going. Meek, with his Father Christmas beard, his little pipe and buckskin outfit, likes to hold court with tales of adventure and his intimate connection to the land, but not everyone is convinced, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) perhaps least of all. Gender roles are clearly defined, but at night Emily whispers with her older, level-headed husband Soloman (Will Patton) about their plight. Their water supply is dwindling, and what food they can prepare is low on nourishment, particularly for the pregnant Glory White (Shirley Henderson).
Their unease is exacerbated with the appearance of a lone, half-naked Indian (Rod Rondeaux) with an oddly handsome face and a scar on his shoulder, who the men capture. There is debate about whether to kill him immediately or keep him around in the hope that he might lead them to water. The group is genuinely afraid--“They don’t think the way we do,” says one of the women, “it’s a documented fact”--but pragmatism wins out. Some of the film’s most interesting passages find Emily negotiating with the nameless Indian with whom no one shares a language. These scenes aren’t intended to render Emily as some sort of preternatural angel of tolerance; her motives are perfectly selfish, but her nonetheless courageous actions hold the promise of some deeper understanding of this feared Other.
Williams gives an even richer performance here than she did in Wendy and Lucy. A sequence filmed in long shot, in which Emily sees the Indian, drops her armload of kindling, and walks back to camp to fire an alarm shot from her cumbersome rifle, buzzes with a protracted, transfixing struggle between panic and clear-headedness. Greenwood, Patton, Henderson, Rondeaux also give nuanced performances peppered with thoughtful distinctions, though two of the younger actors, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, become annoying; they seem to be working too hard to generate drama, while Reichardt’s approach often hangs back from the actors, rewarding subtlety and the ability to maintain tension over long takes.
Reichardt filmed Meek’s Cutoff in the now-rarely used 1.33 aspect ratio, which mirrors the square-framed point-of-view granted to the women through their bonnets, or any of the group while they gaze at the passing landscape through the upside-down U of the wagons. Great pains have been taken to convey this story with as much fidelity to the real experience as possible; even Jeff Grace’s score feels like an extension of breath, the wind in the grass, and the soft clang of things dangling from the wagons. Such touches may seem slight on their own, but taken as a whole they form the ingredients for a rare work that transports us fully into not only a place but a mood, culminating in what is easily one of the best films you’ll see this year.