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 and 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, and he really did lead a group of pioneers on an ill-advised route 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 and 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 Bruce Greenwood, who has always seemed to me far more prolific than interesting. But somehow he comes to ebullient life behind the long beard and buckskins—his Stephen Meek resembles the prototype of the American reactionary hustler, selling shortcuts to wealth with a side dish of racial terror.
His opposite number here is 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, and 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 and disgust.
All the actors, for that matter—from the chronically underrated Will Patton to Rondeaux as the handsome, warily smirking Cayuse to Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan and 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 and editing, and 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 and 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 and Raymond build the suspense to an excruciating level, and 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 and dry.