Throughout the past century of cinema we’ve seen parched earth, looming hills, and endless skies in everything from John Ford’s magisterial Monument Valley to Terrence Malick’s Seventies-era Dust Bowl cine-poems to Paul Thomas Anderson’s desert-as-desiccated-soul in There Will Be Blood. But the expanses of the southwest have never felt quite the way they do in Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, at once a summation of and an evolution in the director’s depictions of the American landscape—indeed, in her filmmaking overall.
She set her last two features in and around the verdant forests of greater Portland, employing the land to different if overlapping purposes. In Old Joy, the peacefulness of the winding woodland paths and picturesque vistas stands in contrast to the unspoken tensions that simmering beneath a boys’-weekend camping trip embarked upon by father-to-be Mark (Daniel London) and longtime friend and lost soul Kurt (Will Oldham). Reichardt ultimately transforms the woods into an emotional space, a would-be Eden where fraying relationships and burnt-out hopes can find flickering, momentary renewal. The protagonist of Wendy and Lucy, in contrast, has little time for nature as balm for the wounded liberal’s soul. A homeless drifter quickly running out of money, Wendy (Michelle Williams) and her faithful canine companion Lucy spend a good deal of time wandering about the strip-mall parking lots and nondescript streets of an unnamed Oregon town. Still, the wilderness remains a constant presence, whether in the sustained opening track of Wendy and Lucy playing fetch in a clearing, or, later, when the woods prove the only resting place free of monetary cost and the eyes of law enforcement. But there’s no Emersonian escape awaiting Wendy. Nature may act as a refuge of sorts, but it’s also situated beyond the borders of societal protection—the very society that slammed the door on Wendy to begin with. To stay there is to inhabit an unpredictable and dangerous space, as seen in Wendy’s throat-tightening nighttime encounter with a mysterious, silent figure who, in a stinging irony, most likely occupies a similar economic position as herself.
Porous to begin with, these dichotomous views of nature flow into one another throughout Meek’s Cutoff. Read the rest of Matt Connolly’s review.