Cast: Michelle Williams,Bruce Greenwood,Paul Dano
Director: Kelly Reichardt
The journey is always the destination in road-trip movies. What happens when the characters get where they’re headed isn’t nearly as important as the adventures they’ve seen and the bonds they’ve forged along the way.
Director Kelly Reichardt takes that idea to an intriguing extreme: Her characters may not even wind up anywhere,but because of her naturalistic approach and deliberate pacing,we’re surprised to find we’ve experienced more than we could have imagined.
This is true of her last two features,”Old Joy” and ”Wendy and Lucy,” but especially of her latest and most powerful film yet,a stripped-down Western called ”Meek’s Cutoff.” Reichardt trusts her audience,encourages her viewers to feel comfortable in the stillness and the quiet,and to draw their own conclusions from an ending that’s as profound as it is enigmatic.
Working with her frequent collaborator,writer Jon Raymond,Reichardt follows three families who are following a guide along the Oregon Trail in 1845. Mr. Meek,played by a charismatic and unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood,talks a big game. He brags about the dangerous places he’s been and makes odd,swaggering comments like ”Hell’s full of bears,” and ”Hell’s full of mountains.”
But it becomes increasingly clear that they’re lost (even though Meek insists,”We’re not lost,we’re just finding our way”) and the families become increasingly frustrated. The tension quietly percolates,and ”Wendy and Lucy” star Michelle Williams,as one of the wives,Emily Tetherow,is the least capable of hiding her annoyance. But she’s also the first to trust a Native American man who crosses their path (Rod Rondeaux),while the others fear,abuse and even threaten to kill him.
Certainly Reichardt is making a statement about the xenophobia that too often has found its way into our national sentiments and discussions in the decade since 9/11. You could construe it as heavy-handed. The Native American is perceived as the enemy,and is treated that way,although he’s done nothing to indicate that he means any harm. Emily,however,sees the potential for good in him _ or at least the potential that he could lead this wagon train in the right direction.
How the travelers respond to him is revealing _ and the excellent cast includes Paul Dano,Zoe Kazan and Will Patton _ but so is the way they go about their daily business: trudging across the dusty plains,trekking up and down hills,setting up camp for the night and then methodically packing it all up again the next morning for another day of misery. It takes all afternoon to cross a river,for example,and Reichardt’s camerawork _ which begins at a distance and works its way inward _ makes us feel as if we’re spying on them.
Reichardt immerses us in a mesmerizing world,full of vivid and merciless detail,and the feeling of isolation she leaves us with is haunting. It’s not a nice place to visit,and you most certainly would not want to live there,either.
”Meek’s Cutoff,” an Oscilloscope Laboratories release,is rated PG for some mild violent content,brief language and smoking. Running time: 104 minutes.