BY: Manori Ravindran
Starring Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood and Will Patton. Directed by Kelly Reichardt. 104 minutes. PG
Kelly Reichardt doesn’t care for dialog. In her fifth film, Meek’s Cutoff, you’d sooner see dust rolling off lumbering wagons, and the glint of tinny water at the bottom of a barrel before hearing a single word spoken. And while you’d think that all this action and no talking would make for a dreary experience, the quiet in Reichardt’s film, about three families lost along the Oregon Trail in 1845, speaks louder than words.
When a wagon team of families sets out to cross the Cascade Mountains, they expect their hired guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to know where he’s going. But after taking what he thinks is a short-cut, Meek leads the group on an unmarked path that gets them perilously lost. In their struggle to find water and a way back, the families come across a Native American whom they hope will lead them in the right direction. But do the travelers trust a man they can’t understand, or continue following one they doubt?
Loosely based on an historical event where fur trapper and explorer Stephen Meek led a group of 200-odd wagons into the Oregon desert, Reichardt has whittled this number down to only three families, staying true to her need for a minimum of everything. But where Reichardt downsizes in cast, she expands in scope, shooting the film in full frame rather than the traditional widescreen, and giving gravity to the travelers’ situation by showing us more of the expansive desert landscape.
Although there is minimal dialogue, what little conversations there are contribute to a deeper understanding of the characters, especially as Reichardt constructs a power hierarchy among the Tetherow, Gately and White families. The husbands and Meek may make the decisions, but it’s the whisperings of the women that keep the men on course.
The pensive Michelle Williams is a perfect fit as rifle-brandishing Emily, the only one in the group who seems to be cautious of the wayward Meek. We later see her try and communicate with the captive Native American, who doesn’t speak English, even going so far as to fix his shoe. “I want him to owe me something,” she says, entrusting the stranger to pay her back while others dismiss the idea of the man understanding such an exchange.
As such, while the wagons move from east to west on-screen, we see the reins of power transfer from the husbands to their wives, who eventually decide whether to follow their captor over the mountains. Meek’s Cutoff is quiet in its urgency, but powerful all the same, and Reichardt’s organic style makes something momentous out of bare essentials. A-
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