“MEEK’S CUTOFF” My rating: B-
1:44 | Rated PG
In her minimalist features “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy,” filmmaker Kelly Reichardt quietly explored relationships among unremarkable individuals in contemporary America.
In “Meek’s Cutoff” she takes the same lightly-plotted approach with the members of a small wagon train slogging along the Oregon Trail in the 1840s.
“Meek’s,” which might be described as a proto-Western, is a daring change of pace, one that has a big payoff intellectually but less of one emotionally and narratively.
The three married couples that make up the tiny caravan are being led by Meek (an almost unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood), a hairy, buckskinned frontiersman who has promised to lead them through the Great American Desert to the lush Pacific Northwest.
Except these pioneers fear that Meek, a garrulous blowhard and cracker barrel philosopher, has gotten them lost.
“We’re not lost. We’re finding our way,” he assures them.
That’s not very comforting. One of the bonneted wives, Emily (Michelle Williams, star of “Wendy and Lucy”), has long suspected Meek of flimflammery. But what a woman thinks really isn’t important. The menfolk (Will Patton, Paul Dano, Neal Huff) make the important decisions in private conclaves; no girls (the other two are played by Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan) are allowed.
Meanwhile there’s lots of walking through an unremarkable and barren environment to the accompaniment of an incessantly squeaking wagon wheel. You’ll need no further proof of how un-glamorous the trek West could be.
Though the threat of death by thirst hangs over “Meek’s Cutoff,” the film itself scrupulously avoids anything like traditional Western drama. When a gun is fired it’s to signal other members of the party, not even to kill game.
Halfway through the picture the travelers seize a lone Native American (Rod Rondeaux). Meeks wants to shoot him outright but his employers argue that perhaps the Indian can lead them to water. It’s his country, after all.
Their captive stoically observes the bickering of these pale strangers. Tied up at night, he sings in his language; maybe he’s preparing to die.
Emily tries to befriend the Indian, mending his torn moccasin. The man doesn’t so much as give a nod of recognition. He treats the trekkers almost as if they were hallucinations that shouldn’t be acknowledged lest they do great mischief.
The biggest complaint about “Meek’s Cutoff” will be that it doesn’t really go anywhere. It sets up a situation and then wanders around in circles before fading to black.
In this the film mirrors the predicament of its characters. Intellectually it’s appropriate enough; emotionally, though, it leaves us feeling just a bit let down.
| Robert W. Butler