Trudging along in creaky covered wagons, mile after spine-jarring mile, day after wind-burned day, through arid alien landscapes, toward an uncertain, hardscrabble future – no wonder our pioneer ancestors were such stoical existentialists.
The three-family wagon train that scrambles along the Oregon Trail of 1845 in director Kelly Reichardt’s artfully plodding “Meek’s Cutoff” is the very embodiment of that pioneer pluck and reticence, of hope against harsh reality, of the forbidding mysteries of the unknown as well as the cruel delusions of Manifest Destiny.
That’s a heavy metaphorical load for any movie to carry, but Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond (who also wrote the director’s “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy”) pull it off with admirable grit and moody reflection to create a spare Western that bravely defies all the macho conventions of traditional Hollywood horse operas.
The story is drawn from a real-life 1845 incident in which wayward guide Stephen Meek lead 200 wagons dangerously astray in the Pacific Northwest, and 23 emigrants died before survivors were escorted to safety by friendly Indians.
Reichardt musters a modest budget and a stellar cast to give us an arty, meditative interpretation of the tale that will likely drive devotees of old-fashioned, action-filled, gun-toting Westerns to distraction.
A grizzled and unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood takes on the role of blowhard mountain man Meek, an Indian-hating wagon master who veers his pioneer flock dangerously off course.
The westward-bound families are the stoical Solomon and Emily Tetherow (Will Patton and Michelle Williams), the devout Glory and William White (Shirley Henderson and Neal Huff) and their young son (Tommy Nelson), and nervous newlyweds Tom and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan).
As water runs out and as Meek becomes more blustery and delusional, the bond of trust among the pilgrims begins to break down, and the capture of an Indian scout from the Cayuse tribe (an inscrutable Rod Rondeaux) sets the stage for some anguished soul searching. Do they trust Meek’s rugged frontier skills, do they fight back against his bullying monomania or do they put their faith and their futures in the hands of the mystical “savage.”
The film gets its best measure of bravery, passion and compassion in the subtly colored performance of Williams, clad in starchy bonnet as the tough-minded Emily Tetherow. She seems perfectly attuned to spare, elemental, allegorical style of storytelling that Reichardt practices (Williams, in fact, also performed a similar dramatic function in “Wendy and Lucy”).
Occasionally dour and dramatically inert but plumbing admirably for a real-life sense of moral ambiguity, “Meek’s Cutoff” is likely too deliberate and philosophical to stir the blood. But as cerebral Westerns go, it plows some deep and fertile furrows.
- Dennis King
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan
(Some mild violent content, brief language, smoking)