Review by Jack Foley
KELLY Reichardt proved with her first two films, Old Joy and Wendy & Lucy that she’s a filmmaker to keep an eye on, even if her films tend to leave you emotionally devastated and require a certain amount of patience.
With Meek’s Cutoff she delivers a positive underlining of all those elements in what arguably rates as her most ambitious work to date.
As with her previous films, the story takes place in and around Portland, Oregon, but is relocated to 1845, during the earliest days of the Oregon trail, as a wagon train of three families bid to find a new life and fortune over the Cascade Mountains.
Their dream soon turns to a nightmare, however, when their hired guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), offers to take them on a shortcut via an unmarked path over the high plain desert, only to find themselves lost in the arid rock and sage.
With food and especially water running low, tensions begin to emerge as the group’s faith in Meek is sorely tested, and their own resolve put to the test. The presence of an Indian, whom they later capture, merely adds to the confusion and distrust surrounding their ever worsening predicament.
Reichardt’s film, which was co-written with long-time collaborator Jon Raymond, is a sparse, downbeat offering that unfolds at a deliberately torturous pace, as if to underline the predicament of its protagonists. As such, it does require a certain amount of patience.
But there’s plenty to admire and take in along the way, from the often stunning landscapes (which, while mostly barren, bring extra character to the story), and the performances of its cast.
Will Patton, in particular, excels as one of the wiser family members, whose own sense of decency and right and wrong is slowly corroded by circumstance and pressure, while Michelle Williams is also brilliant as his young wife, who shows surprising sympathy and compassion to the Indian in their charge.
Greenwood, too, is typically great as the gruff guide Meek, whose own resolve and charisma is gradually worn down by the elements and his own inability to impose his will.
If the film ends on a downbeat note that feels somewhat unrewarding given the nature of the journey, it’s haunting final moments will stay with viewers for some time afterwards… offering them a clever, even bleak taste of the unforgiving nature of early frontier life.
But then this is something that Reichardt has consistently been at pains to point out, with extended shots of people walking or going silently about their daily rituals frequently offered instead of long chapters of dialogue.
In that sense, the film owes a lot to the opening of Paul Anderson’s There Will Be Blood
And in many ways, it’s no less powerful, even if its performances are more under-stated (the presence of Paul Dano, in both, heightens this particular comparison).
The overall impression, therefore, is that Reichardt has delivered another gripping movie: one that certainly won’t appeal to every taste (particularly mainstream), but one that offers a raw, vivid and frequently tense insight into frontier life. It strips away the romanticism of the West, replacing it instead with a stark, unforgiving reality that’s hard to forget.
Running time: 104mins
UK DVD Release: August 8, 2011