With their stories of intricate relationships framed against Oregon's harsh, beautiful terrain, 2006's Old Joy and 2008's Wendy and Lucy established writer-director Kelly Reichardt as a unique and powerful voice in American independent film. Reichardt's latest effort, Meek's Cutoff, navigates similar thematic and topographical terrain, but also manages to be her most ambitious and accomplished work to date.
Jonathan Raymond's (co-writer of Wendy and Lucy and author of the book Old Joy, which the movie adapted) screenplay is based on events surrounding the actual Meek's Cutoff, a branch off the Oregon Trail named for guide Stephen Meek, who led a group of pioneers on a harrowing trip along the route in 1845, despite his apparent unfamiliarity with the area. As the party's journey grows increasingly daunting, Meek's (chillingly played by a captivating Bruce Greenwood) motivations and abilities are questioned, especially by the headstrong Mrs. Tetherow (Michelle Williams, in a typically commanding performance). Group dynamics are further fractured when they encounter a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) whose intentions are also debated.
Initially quiet and serene, while alternately hinting at nature's brutal reality, the film is beautifully shot by Chris Blauvelt (who did camera work on the similarly striking Where the Wild Things Are, A Single Man, and Zodiac, among others) in a pale, Malickian color palette. Reichardt's camera lingers and mesmerizes, her editing rewarding viewers' patience with an earned, deliberate pace. The raw tone she achieves — reflected in Jeff Grace's appropriately sparse, haunting score — gives the proceedings an immediacy, rather than period piece stiffness, effectively capturing the settlers' eventually agonizing experience.
Meek's Cutoff is a movie about communication and understanding, a common theme for Reichardt, though writ large here. We experience events though Williams' eyes and ears, literally: POV shots of the wagon trail are often obscured by her enormous bonnet; when the men of the group discuss plans, they stand just out of earshot of the group's women, so that the viewer hears as little of these important conversations as Williams does. Greenwood often speaks in a nearly unintelligible growl of axioms and tall tales; The Indian (as the character is credited) doesn't speak English, but leaves signs on rocks that the viewer — and the settlers — don't understand. There are political allegories to be found here, if you're looking for them, but the film (and its ambiguity) succeeds without needing to strain for metaphor.