Meek’s Cutoff (dir. Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

Every now and then, certain films achieve a rare and practically perfect harmony between tone, aesthetic and content – a quietness that feels poetic, a formalism that feels effortless, an existentialism that feels organic. Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is one of these films, as is Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre the Wrath of God, and now, in 2011, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff. Shot in the Academy ratio with a stark, spare elegance that makes the widescreen tendency in the Western genre seem almost naggingly literal, Meek’s Cutoff is enigmatic frontier cinema, a slow burn as deliberate as American expansionism itself.

Reichardt’s pointed, relentlessly assured direction throws into eye-opening relief the off-course characters of the film, a group of pioneers being led with either brash incompetence or malicious deception into the barren, waterless deserts of 1845 Oregon by trail guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood in perfectly outsized hangdog-bullshitter mode). These women, men and child are in the subtly horrific throes of being lost, and dealing in impossibly large questions. Should Meek be hanged for his failings on their expedition? Should the native man who is encountered and then held captive be killed, or trusted to direct them to water? Does that discovered gold nugget have value now, when survival is at stake? As a character in John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre wisely notes, “Water’s precious. Sometimes may be more precious than gold.” While in Huston’s film the three male characters spit the pros and cons of ethical predicaments back and forth at each other like rabidly paranoid dogs, in Reichardt’s frame such discussions take place mostly under the scarcely lit blanket of night, in muffled conversation by the group’s trio of bonneted women, recounting the earlier debates of their husbands.

The ensemble performance in Meek’s Cutoff is staggering, headed by a terrific, wary-eyed and knit-browed Michelle Williams as Emily Tetherow. Emily is the most radical member of the group, as her disdain for Meek is pointed and palpable (Williams has mastered the cutting glance with a formal precision rarely seen in contemporary actors), her sympathy for the captured native has an intuitive abandon, and – as seen at two crucial moments  – her willingness to cock a rifle is unflinching. Indie darling Zoe Kazan and the woefully underused Irish actress Shirley Henderson, as the other two bonnet-wearers on the doomed voyage, each excellently embody the hyperbolic dread of the unfamiliar; whether through a full-body frozen expression of terror, as with Kazan, or through an inappropriate, insuppressible moment of giggles, as with Henderson. Meanwhile, Rod Rondeaux quietly impresses as “the Indian” – even when held prisoner, his wordless, surveying stares exert control over the wagoners, and reveal just a hint of gleeful schadenfreude at their misfortunes.

The Indian is either leading the group to water or he isn’t. Similarly, the pioneers will either survive the perilous Oregon desert or they won’t. Meek’s Cutoff operates on such truths, and respects the deceptively simple nature of these realities too much to dabble in signs. Reichardt has created images – gorgeous and transcendentally minimalist as they are – that reveal an existential predicament but refuse to offer easy answers. The silhouette of an empty birdcage, a prairie sky slowly dissolving into a line of weary emigrants, a lone tree in a supposedly waterless expanse – all mean what they mean, and no amount of hope or fearfulness can breathe new significance into what, as Stephen Meek utters in a moment of newfound mysticism, “has been written long before we got here.” The poetry of Meek’s Cutoff is that its travelers, the lost pioneers and we the audience, can not know the definite meaning of these images and circumstances but only that they exist.