“Meek’s Cutoff” takes place in the open fields of the midwest, the year 1845, the land untouched, civilization slowly being built, but where the film feels contemporary, with its period-specific detail, all thick bonnets and dirt-stained wagons, is in its intimacy. Director Kelly Reichardt has made a film where a deadly showdown between “Cowboy” and “Indian” has the same weight as a close-up shot of the strained knuckles of a traveler who has tied down too many ropes nightly.
With the intention to cross the Cascade Mountains, the Tetherows, the Gatelys and the Whites have entrusted their survival to the experienced hands of one Stephen Meek. Meek, a self-proclaimed expert tracker, suggests the crew take a shortcut, one that leads them on the road to nowhere. This isn’t some side-winding adventure where they encounter snakes, monsters and gold nuggets, however. Instead, it’s just hopelessness, the open-fields, the wide spaces of the plains, the dusty, unexplored terrain of the west. It’s a demo version of “Oregon Trail” essentially.
Of course, Meek, a vain braggart who tells stories of his bloodshed and “heroism,” seems very much dedicated to being right, of confirming his own suspicions about the land rather than getting anyone to safety. The growly, bearded man has a poker-face buried underneath his thick facial hair, almost as if he’s masked his true intentions behind his hirsuteness. We have enough faith in humanity to know he’s not intentionally misleading them, but we can never be completely sure given his clear vanity, a strong trait that characters easily latch onto.
Meek’s refusal to listen to alternate viewpoints places him in an antagonistic position against the camp, but it also calls doubt on our own judgment systems. Do we dare consider what the girls debate, that Meek is a truly “bad” person? He never acts openly malicious towards his employers, but is his hubris evidence of a vague sense of evil?
Historical context would be best for this. Not for 1845, which saw the invention of the rubber band and the annexation of Texas. But it’s impossible not to see the parallels between the film and the social change going on today. Dull-minded critics will immediately draw a bead on Meek-as-Bush metaphors, which does a disservice to the main characters of the film, the women. Emily, Millie and Glory are our primary protagonists, though they do not have the most lines. Instead, these women are kept in the background purposely, kept away from the boys’ club dedicated solely to making sure everyone survives. As we watch the women silently observe the men planning the next course of action, we are reminded that their lives are being decided while they stand mute.
Reichardt takes great pains to not overplay the idea that these women, like many in that era, had no control over their fate. “Meek’s Cutoff” of course arrives at a curious time, one where the American government seems hellbent on criminalizing any idea with a peripheral relationship to abortion, in an attempt to dial back Roe V. Wade in ways that find old white men taking control of the wombs of women in some cases, redefining rape in others, with federal funding planning on cutting millions in family planning services. When Meek congratulates Solomon for having a young wife, is it a stretch for one to be reminded of Congress’ recent decision to block a bill ending child marriage?
“Meek’s Cutoff” positions itself as an angry movie with or without these associations. Much of that comes from the fiery work of Michelle Williams. As Emily, she is the most outspoken of all the girls, frequently taking Meek to task for his machismo BS, the actress’s quivering lower lip put to good use as the one person in the camp aware that only death awaits them in the open grasslands. While relationships with an encroaching Native American prove complex, Emily is the one smart enough to know that it’s not compassion that makes giving him a blanket a wise decision, but practicality: she knows the crew will need as many resources as they can handle. Naturally, her viewpoint is not considered viable.
With only a few films under her belt, Kelly Reichardt has positioned herself as a major voice in independent film. While “Meek’s Cutoff” still leans towards the arthouse — long passages of camp preparation and management go by with only a sparse soundtrack — Reichardt stands out as a filmmaker with a keen eye for storytelling, thematic structure and performance. While she’s gotten superlative work from Williams in both this and “Wendy And Lucy,” the film boasts captivating performances from both Bruce Greenwood as Meek and Will Patton as Solomon. The two thesps have always been considered genre favorites without much versatility, popping up as characters fighting aliens, supervillains and monsters. But Patton brings a quiet strength to a man quietly aware of his intellectual limitations, uncertain as to the path of action. And as the bearded Meek, Greenwood is unrecognizable, his demented prospector both outsized and subtle, his hubris disguising an ego that continues to slightly wound until his final selfless moments. Meek’s misdirection may serve as a warning to audiences: do not lose the narrative that is the exciting career of one of cinema’s brightest voices. [A]