If you’ve ever had any romantic notions of being a covered wagon pioneer on the American frontier, Meek’s Cutoff will be happy to disabuse you of them. Set in the 1840s, Kelly Reichardt’s film concerns a small party of families led by a hired guide named Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), who has promised to take them on a time-saving “cutoff” to the end of the Oregon Trail.
Low on water, surrounded by vast empty stretches of eastern Oregon desert & terrified of Indian attack, the party begins to grow skeptical of Meek, especially the sharp-eyed Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams). As their desperation mounts, they capture a Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) who had been keeping them under surveillance. Meek, who reflexively despises Indians, advises killing the man on the spot; Mr. Tetherow (Will Patton) overrules him, on the grounds that the captive could lead them to water.
There really was an historical Stephen Meek, & he really did lead a group of pioneers on an ill-advised “cutoff” through the Oregon Territory in 1845. To what extent he otherwise resembled the character in this movie—a self-conscious embodiment of the “colorful” frontiersman, spinning yarns & getting hopes up—I don’t know.
But Meek the movie character is vividly realized. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Canadian actor Greenwood, who has always seemed to me far more prolific than interesting. But somehow he comes to ebullient life behind the long beard & buckskins—his Stephen Meek is like the prototype of the American reactionary hustler, selling shortcuts to wealth with a side dish of racial terror. Even dressed as he is, he wouldn’t look out of place at a Tea Party Rally, & he really wouldn’t sound all that out of place, either.
His opposite number here is Michelle Williams as Mrs. Tetherow, who knows how little her opinion counts with the party as a whole, though her husband is smart enough to know she’s worth listening to. Meek can see her humane intelligence too, & he can’t resist baiting her in mock-gallant terms, though you sense that she touches a guilty nerve in his soul. Williams, superb in Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy, is just as impressive here—she gives us a portrait of a life spent skillfully repressing anger & disgust.
All the actors, for that matter, from the chronically underrated Will Patton to Rondeaux as the handsome, warily smirking Cayuse to Paul Dano & Zoe Kazan & Shirley Henderson from the other wagons, contribute to a believable period ensemble. Jon Raymond’s dialogue is tinged with lyrical formality in the 19th-Century manner, but in the hands of this cast it still sounds like real people talking.
Reichardt’s austere, uncompromising direction & editing, & the pitiless sun-baked cinematography of Chris Blauvelt make Meek’s Cutoff an empathic experience—my desire to see these people find water was intense. But the film isn’t just a grueling survival tale, it’s thought-provoking & dramatic, hinging on quintessentially American issues that still feel relevant.
Indeed, Meek’s Cutoff has just about all the elements one could ask of a classic movie…except an ending. Reichardt & Raymond build the suspense to an excruciating level, & then the film just stops, like one those beautifully-crafted, unsatisfying New Yorker short stories that seem to regard resolution as vulgar. It’s a cutoff of a different sort than Meek’s party experienced, but it leaves us likewise high & dry.