By Marc Glassman
Kelly Reichardt, director
Jonathan Raymond, script
Starring: Michelle Williams (Emily Tetherow), Bruce Greenwood (Stephen Meek), Shirley Henderson (Glory White), Neal Huff (William White), Zoe Kazan (Millie Gately), Tommy Nelson (Jimmy White), Will Patton (Soloman Tetherow), Rod Rondeaux (The Cayuse)
Kelly Reichardt’s current feature Meek’s Cutoff offers a litmus test for Toronto audiences and critics. That the film is having a week-long run at Bell Lightbox as part of a retrospective of her work entitled Wandering, Wondering shows how quickly Reichardt’s style has been championed by film scholars–and how difficult it is to turn that praise into box office receipts.
Reichardt glories in depicting characters dealing with the mundane realities of life even if they’re enduring melodramatic situations. Michelle Williams, who starred in Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt’s last film and takes the lead once again in this period Western, is remarkably good at drawing the viewer’s attention to herself even if the narrative surrounding her isn’t all that compelling. In Wendy and Lucy, she spent most of her screen time looking for a beloved dog; this time around, she’s concerned with keeping a wagon train moving through a particularly appalling desert.
Williams is fine in Meek’s Cutoff, as is Canadian Bruce Greenwood, who plays the titular character, a guide who may not know the Oregon countryside as well as he claims. Equally interesting is an ensemble cast including Will Patton and Zoe Kazan. The question audiences might ask is: are their circumstances worthy of attention?
Meek’s Cutoff is set in 1845, at the beginning of the time when wagon trains of emigrants from the American East Coast crossed the hills, deserts and plains of the West heading towards California. We know that it was a difficult and dangerous journey. Many experienced intense moments of heat and hunger and most feared attacks from the Indians (whom we now legitimately call First Nations peoples).
But as these White settlers conquered the vast terrain, an atmosphere of romance began to settle on the period. Books were written and eventually films were made depicting the “settling of the West” as being an adventurous and exciting time. It has become part of the mythology of the United States and, to a far lesser extent, Canada.
Kelly Reichardt is hardly the first filmmaker to debunk the conquest of the West. After Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) was wildly successful, the Seventies were littered with films attacking the old notions of Westerns. Little Big Man, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Jeremiah Johnson and McCabe and Mrs. Miller are just four of the films that challenged the old concepts made famous by directors like John Ford and Henry Hathaway, which often starred John Wayne or James Stewart.
So what makes Meek’s Cutoff special? Well, it’s Reichardt, which means that every nuance in a scene has been considered and beautifully depicted. By deliberately slowing down the pace, the film allows the audience to appreciate what it would be like to move through a desert without a map: just quietly enduring a situation that could turn desperate at any moment. The tensions between the group and Meek are well played out particularly when a member of the Cayuse tribe is captured by the men.
Should they kill him–or have him replace Meek as their guide? That question dominates the last part of the story–and it’s never resolved. Meek’s Cutoff leaves its cast–and the audience–trapped in the desert with no direction home.
Meek’s Cutoff is less a revisionist Western than it is an existential art film. You can label it “feminist” but that may not be fair to Reichardt or her intentions. Once again, Reichardt has created an unusual cinematic experience. Is it for the general public? No–but this film will have its passionate advocates.