The narrative of Meek’s Cutoff, the latest film from writer Jon Raymond and director Kelly Reichardt, begins somewhere in the middle of its own history. In 1845, having already veered off the Oregon Trail in favour of a shortcut suggested by guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), three families find themselves stranded and in desperate need of water; very early on in the film, one character etches “LOST” into a dry tree trunk. Its Academy ratio suggests a more romanticised West has been left behind, its would-be vistas humbled to the narrower needs of surivival. Early shots portray daily monotony; a montage sequence utilises painstaking dissolves to evoke the passing of time. The first reel contains no dialogue.
Such is the patience with which this contemporary western unfolds. Unlike True Grit earlier this year, Meek’s Cutoff is less a revision of the genre than an entry that exists almost entirely on its own terms. A western in setting only, Raymond’s script resists action in the traditional sense to the point where an otherwise posturing stand-off becomes overwhelmingly tense, or where the sound of a wagon left to crash at the bottom of a steep hill signifies a certain doom. Though incident is sparse, Reichardt’s editing is sharp, invoking a familiarity with these characters that we as viewers, without any exposition guiding us, must navigate for ourselves.
An ensemble piece at heart – also featuring Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson and Neal Huff – the film boasts two standout performances by Greenwood as the wagoners’ appointed guide and Michelle Williams as Emily Tetherow, through whom events are seen. Vaguely resembling early Terrence Malick, in whose Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) voice-overs told us one thing while the visuals told us another, the film sees Mrs. Tetherow ponder Meek with her husband Solomon (Will Patton): “I don’t know whether he’s ignorant or just evil”; this not long before we see Meek himself reassure youngster Jimmy White (Tommy Nelson) by explaining why some hills in the near distance aren’t the mountains they seek, and suggesting they call them Jimmy’s Mountains henceforth. The filmmakers’ humanism is clear.
Between Emily and Meek is the unnamed Cayuse Indian, a complex and enigmatic Other played with superb minimalism by Rod Rondeaux. After Solomon and Meek capture him, the latter argues in favour of an immediate execution; though the other three men oppose it – their wives don’t have a say in the matter – it is Emily who takes to offering the native basic sustenance: first food, then water, and much to the hysteria of fellow wagoner Millie Gately (Zoe Kazan), she sews his moccasin back together.
The film resists a feminist utopianism, though. Emily’s bartering instinct is less sympathetic than an attempt to make the native indebted to her. It keeps in with not only historical realism but Emily’s class: earlier in the film, she complains to the other women that they are “working like niggers again”. As she mends the shoe, she responds to the native’s own silent curiosity by saying, “This is nothing; you should see the cities we’ve built back home.” The point might be fair, but it’s at least muted by the group’s increasing helplessness in a harsh, barren terrain.
After the migrants lose one of their wagons, Meek’s increasing humiliation – his egotistical self-assurance has led them all astray – boils over and he raises his gun to the Cayuse. Emily in turn raises her husband’s own rifle to Meek’s chest. When the latter eventually concedes, the native’s seeming indifference is mildly amusing, something which ultimately aids the film’s transcendent climax, a moment of conciliation in which a group of advanced travellers face the death of one of their own and accept an alien, inexplicable ritual from the very man they may, not long before, have murdered.
Stunningly shot by Chris Blauvelt and complimented beautifully by Jeff Grace‘s sparse but somehow optimistic score, the film maintains a thematic ambiguity (and even a wry dramatic irony, given its historical grounding) by omitting exposition and denying us closure. At one point, in which Millie’s suspicions regarding the Cayuse’s engraved sketches reach superstitious levels, the film obviously parallels current events, in which a “war on terror” is one based on a conscious and continued political misunderstanding.
At other moments in the film, the men gather out of earshot to discuss how best to move on; the camera remains with us, as we watch decisions being made alongside the men’s wives. Though this characterisation is historically specific, the film is shot without artificial period sets or CGI; its quiet naturalism invites further reading and demands more understanding, placing us as it does alongside the undervoiced.