Title: Meek’s Cutoff
Genre: Drama, Western
Director: Kelly Reichardt
Screenwriters: Jonathan Raymond
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano
Confounding then riveting then terrifying as it plays, and indelibly haunting after it ends, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff is at once an intimate, small-scale drama about a group of American emigrants led dangerously off-course in 1874 Oregon (“You have died of dysentery,” etc.), and an epically ambitious think piece about nothing less than the fate of western civilization. Those who are now groaning with the recollection of Reichardt’s pedantic class warfare indie Wendy & Lucy can relax – her follow-up is nothing like that (admittedly effective) blunt instrument. Indeed, Meek’s Cutoff — a nominal western that seems to be reminding people of Malick, though I think that actually sells the film short – draws its power from the way Reichardt’s effortless naturalism builds almost imperceptibly into potent, bona fide drama; the arthouse version of survivalist horror.
Fair warning that Reichardt does not make it easy. It took me just about half the modest running time to get straight the cast of characters that comprises the film’s embattled caravan – three families, one with a young son and another child on the way, accompanied by the titular Meek (an extraordinarily grizzled Bruce Greenwood), the guide and frontiersman who has promised them a shortcut to the settlement promise land. The families – or, more accurately, the men – bought Meek’s bill of goods, but now the terrain is getting rough, food and water is getting low, and some among the group have begun insistently raising the possibility that Meek doesn’t know where the hell he’s going. Or maybe that he’s a French agent tasked with leading American settlers astray.
Two of the men capture an Indian – a heathen, a savage. Meek, who enjoys telling stories of atrocities blithely committed by the beastly natives (scalping, skinning alive, and the like), implores the families to shoot the captive then and there. Soloman Tetherow (Will Patton), the caravan’s hardiest and most resourceful member, has a different idea: the Indian lives here, and must know where to find water. Everyone else worries that he’s just as capable of locating a posse of his “blackfoot” compatriots. Desperation wins out, and after a few abortive attempts to communicate, the families cut him loose and content themselves with following behind him as he calmly treks God knows where.
How the various travelers relate to the captured Indian forms the moral and dramatic core of the film. Forgoing a golden opportunity to grandstand and draw righteous contemporary parallels, Reichardt regards her characters’ (for the most part) hideously racist attitudes with matter-of-fact dispassion. Perhaps because of this, Meek’s Cutoff becomes quietly startling. Anger and dehumanizing insults are one thing, but what are we to make of Millie Gately (Zoe Kazan), who reacts to the native’s arrival, and the group’s subsequent decision to keep him around, with terror – actual mortal fear – hysterically begging her young husband (Paul Dano) to shoot the man, or else leave the party and go off on their own? It’s a reaction that’s at once fully believable and difficult to process. Reichardt’s refusal to give us a familiar moralizing context for this (Millie is never scorned or rebuked; at worst she’s humored, the way men a century and a half ago might have treated an “overemotional” woman) makes the movie a shock to the system.
Only Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) treats the new arrival with any sort of humanity, mending his moccasin on the theory that she wants him to “owe me something.” She makes no grandstanding speeches, but her subtle acts of daring disturb the artificial balance of power among the traveling party – which is really the film’s overarching theme. Reichardt’s haunting, abrupt conclusion suggests that the balance of power in our entire civilization may not be what we think it is.