Alfred Hitchcock once asked, “What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out?” Kelly Reichardt offers something of an answer in Meek’s Cutoff, a history-based drama that dares to be dull. Anyone with a lick of sense knows that settlers traveling the Oregon Trail in 1845 faced a long and empty expanse disrupted by little more than the drudgery it took to endure. Director Reichardt and writer Jonathan Raymond—last teamed on Wendy and Lucy—adopt a “you are there” aesthetic, its simplicity and achingly slow pace reflecting the way of life it depicts. (Reichardt employs snail-slow dissolves; she also shoots in the boxy frame of pre-widescreen films, to evoke the limited viewpoint of the bonnet-encased women.)
Part of the film’s appeal is in its suggestion of the best-ever reenactment museum, as certified actors recreate the specifics of wagon-train life, down to the casually racist attitudes. The story derives from an 1845 incident that found roughly a thousand people led astray by wagon train guide Stephen Meek. Claiming intimate knowledge of the terrain, Meek led the pioneers on an ill-advised route that came to be known as “Meek Cutoff.” Raymond truncates the scale of the story by having Meek (Bruce Greenwood) guiding seven people in three wagons.
At the film’s opening, the party is already lost in the landscape, their hardscrabble existence compounded by fear of dehydration, starvation or exposure to Indian attack. The men-folk—Meek, Soloman Tetherow (Will Patton), Thomas Gately (Paul Dano), William White (Neal Huff) and William’s boy Jimmy (Tommy Nelson)—hold counsel to discuss and argue options while the women-folk—Soloman’s wife Emily (Michelle Williams), William’s pregnant wife Glory White (Shirley Henderson) and Thomas’ wife Millie (Zoe Kazan)—wait, uninvited to share their opinions.
As their desperate situation grows clearer, the women’s voices will be heard, at least by their husbands in the dark of night. Emily, the boldest of the women, makes clear her distrust of their supposed experienced guide, whose pride goeth before their fall. He has an answer for everything, including the difference between the genders: “Women are created on the principle of chaos. The chaos of creation, disorder, bringing new things into the world. Men, created on the principle of destruction. It’s like cleansing, order and destruction.”
Emily responds that she’ll have to think about Meek’s estimation, a canny answer to Meek’s unearned certitude (or is it bravado?) that he knows all and his leadership instincts are infallible. When she later wonders, “Is he ignorant, or just plain evil?” modern audiences unsure about their political leaders may well relate.
With every passing minute, Meek’s Cutoff seems more like an existential nightmare of maddening uncertainty, a notion only emphasized by Reichardt’s commitment to ambiguity. Like the poker-faced Cayuse Native American (Ron Rondeaux) the wagon train encounters, Reichardt can wear a Mona Lisa smile about the proceedings, but there certainly seems to be a hint of perverseness in the constant sound of whimpering wagon wheels and where they get us by picture’s end.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]