Meek’s Cutoff (Oscilloscope Pictures, PG)

I’d be hard-pressed to come up with another modern director who has such a hold on personality and intimacy between audience members and characters.

 

 

In her last two films, director Kelly Reichardt has pretty much been doing her own thing, and yet her films feel like throwbacks to American independent cinema of the 80s. Her best film to date, 2006’s Old Joy, was a paean to alienated friendships and looking out the window while listening to music, and 2008’s Wendy & Lucy finds sweet, uncovered ground in what sounds like what would be a boring story about a girl and her dog. By the standards of her recent pictures, Reichardt’s new film, Meek’s Cutoff, is positively epic—it’s set in 1845 on the Oregon Trail as a wagon team tries to find their way across the seemingly interminable plains. And while there are some gorgeous landscape shots and more-than-usual attention paid to period detail (for Reichardt’s films, anyway), Meek’s Cutoff still feels very much like a Reichardt film, and I mean that in the best possible way.

For one thing, it’s very personal. Most epics have large casts, but here Reichardt keeps her focus on a few key members of an already relatively small cast. Most notable (and debatably in possession of the greatest character arc) is Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams, who was also the protagonist in Wendy & Lucy—this is quickly becoming one of the best director/actor relationships of recent years), the most logical and perhaps the most headstrong of the wagon team. Of course there’s also mountain man Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who the team hires on account of his claim to know a shortcut (hence the title), but who instead promptly gets them lost, or so it seems. The team gets more and more desperate after days of not finding any water and wandering around on an unmarked “path”, until eventually they come across a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) whom they can’t decide what to do with. Should they kill him (operating under the assumption that Native Americans are their enemies)? Should they see if he can show them where to get water? Should they see if he somehow knows a way to get where they’re trying to go? It of course doesn’t help matters that they have no real means of communication with the Native American, short of pointing and grunting, miming, or occasionally threatening him with a gun.

Beyond the focus on characterization and moral dilemmas as opposed to sweeping set pieces and high production values, Reichardt keeps the pace chugging along and finishes in a brisk 104 minutes. She even keeps the aspect ratio to 1.33:1, which is not exactly the cinemascope (2.35:1) generally associated with movies like this. And, not surprisingly, the film works—I’d be hard-pressed to come up with another modern director who has such a hold on personality and intimacy between audience members and characters, all the while maintaining a stony indifference to the people in her films and the follies that befall them. | Pete Timmermann

 

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