Meek's Cutoff is an act of inversion, a western that reverses the genre's traditional forms and dynamics to create something new and startling, yet still familiar. Kelly Reichardt's follow-up to Wendy and Lucy reteams her with Michelle Williams for a tale of frontier suspense, albeit the type fostered by eerie silences, imposing environments, barely overheard conversations, and intensely inquisitive gazes. At nearly every turn, Reichardt deliberately upends conventions: Rather than expansive widescreen, she shoots in a boxy Academy-standard 4:3 aspect ratio that turns the vast Oregon plains claustrophobic; instead of expressive close-ups that capture frontiersmen and women's tumultuous conditions, she opts for medium and long shots that keep her subjects at a distance; and in place of gunfire-peppered narrative momentum and relatively clear-cut good-versus-evil characterizations, she slows her material to a crawl and drenches her action in ambiguity, to the point that the entire affair quickly becomes engulfed in literal and moral/spiritual haziness. The effect is to situate the proceedings in a disorienting alternate-movie universe, one that evokes the westerns of the '40s and '50s, but exudes the languorous introspection and vagueness of modern art-house cinema, a hybridization that, in most instances, invigorates Reichardt's latest portrait of those on the hardscrabble margins, struggling against human and natural impediments to survive.
An opening embroidered title card not only sets the scene (it's the Oregon Trail, 1845), but also establishes a sense of handmade tactility that runs throughout Meek's Cutoff, which revolves around a three-couple caravan directed by Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a guide with long scraggly locks and an even longer beard who's been hired to shepherd them over the Cascade Mountains. By scenario's start, Meek has already apparently led the convoy astray, and this aimlessness has sown seeds of discord that grow, with insidious patience, as their destination continues to elude them and their water supply grows scarce. The specter of starvation, and the mutiny that will surely precede it, looms large over Reichardt's story (written by Jon Raymond). Yet more than plot machinations, it's the filmmaker's dreamily unhurried aesthetics that produce edginess: compositions in which characters abandon the frame, the still air (punctuated by Jeff Grace's score and Leslie Shatz's sound design, which spreads and mutates foreboding violins to the point of abstraction), and a focus on labor and ritual all contribute to an atmosphere of menacing hardship. Reichardt fixates so doggedly and respectfully on hands gathering firewood, fingers threading needles, and men and women transporting baskets and bird cages over their heads while crossing rivers that her images soon take on a hallucinatory ominousness.
That mood is amplified by Chris Blauvelt's gorgeous breaking-dawn, twilight, and nocturnal panoramas of the imposing Oregonian landscape, which doesn't so much reflect its characters' desires, misgivings, and anxieties (à la Anthony Mann) so much as simply serve as an indifferent, hostile battleground for what eventually becomes a minimalist saga of faith, trust, sacrifice, altruism, and the essential difficulty of comprehending another's heart. As Meek drives the caravan deeper and deeper into a wilderness that none of the travelers can escape, Emily Tetherow (Williams) loses confidence in the cocksure stewardship of their escort, whose tales of derring-do (including one regarding a tussle with a bear) ring with hollow bluster. With no alternatives, however, Meek's authority goes largely unchallenged, until an encounter with a Cayuse Native American (Rod Rondeaux) splinters the group between Meek, who advocates killing the untrustworthy savage, and Emily's husband Soloman (Will Patton), who argues that he may be their best chance of finding water. The issue of how one determines incontrovertible facts thus rises to the surface, a dilemma complicated by cultural ignorance and prejudice, man's self-destructiveness, and a natural world that's unsympathetic to its inhabitants' hardships.
Reichardt's tale never overtly gestures toward contemporary parallels, but her saga of a confident, possibly clueless leader guiding his desperate and lost flock into a perilous future functions, on at least one level, as a leaden Bush allegory. Still, whereas such political matters might have bogged Meek's Cutoff down in a pedantic morass, a refusal to explicitly signal its intentions allows the film to operate on multiple planes, including as a bibilical fable (suggested by a boy reading from the Old Testament about the Garden of Eden to his parents) and, in a vein similar to both Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, as a more generalized portrait of the arduousness of working-class subsistence. Throughout, Reichardt's POV remains aligned with her female protagonists (yet another central genre inversion), who are at once key caravan members (they cook, clean, and offer counsel) and yet outsiders, since they have no genuine decision-making power. By adhering to their perspective, the director creates underlying dissonance that's furthered by subtle suggestions that everyone isn't necessarily as easy to read as first assumed, culminating in a muted smile (of satisfaction? Or is it just bemusement?) from the Native American while watching his captors' wagon tumble to its destruction down a steep hill.
That uncertainty about the authentic nature and motivations of its characters elevates Meek's Cutoff into something more ruminative, indistinct, and unsettling than its political metaphors initially suggest. And had Reichardt opted to craft three-dimensional protagonists as well, her film might have approached the spartan masterpiece it frequently seems poised to become. Unfortunately, by keeping her emigrants at a persistent remove, the filmmaker renders them more representational figures than living, breathing humans, and thus her inquiry into her chosen themes comes off as a tad too conceptual and academic to generate consistent engagement with their poignant emotional plight. Nonetheless, even in somewhat cursory brushstrokes, Williams (heading a superb cast) exudes complex turmoil born not only from wariness of Meek, but from a simultaneous suspicion of Rondeaux's Native American and compassion for him—as evidenced during a late-act rifle showdown. Such understated density is the film's lifeblood, and also indicative of its masterful closing image, a sustained, haunting shot that doesn't resolve but merely leaves its fundamental questions hanging in the air, providing a fitting grace note to an oater ultimately concerned with the terrifying unknowability of truth.