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The Western has got any number of much-lauded revamps over the last few years, but none as spare and transformative as Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, in which the director once again uses her quiet observational style to deconstruct any number of American myths. The story of an 1845 wagon train in Oregon led astray by a guide who's either an idiot or truly malevolent, Meek's Cutoff is another Reichardt film in which silence and stillness stand in marvelously for traditional narrative structure. The fact that it's all happening against the forbidding, mythic landscape of the West, tightly constrained within the 1.35:1 Academy ratio, brings Reichardt's filmmaking to a larger scale without ever compromising the fierce intimacy of her story.
Though the cast is an ensemble in the truest sense, with several actors' faces hidden behind bonnets and large hats until well into the film's first act, Michelle Williams is once again Reichardt's lead as Emily Tetherow, traveling with her new husband (Will Patton) and two other couples across the harsh Oregon landscape on their way to some unidentified new homestead. The wagon party is led, in a manner of speaking, by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, unrecognizable behind a forest of beard and hair), a trail guide who professes confidence about their route even while leading the party through days of desert with no water in sight. The homesteaders have no better option for leadership until they capture an Indian (Rod Rondeaux), whom Emily and her husband presume will lead them to water eventually.
That would be the setup for gunplay and manly one-upmanship in your classical Western format, but that's pretty much it for Meek's Cutoff, which takes its time reveling--and wallowing--in the harsh details of frontier life. The opening scene of the party crossing a river takes 10 languorous minutes, and when it comes time to lower the wagons down a steep hill, we watch each make its slow progress with excruciating tension. Even when the men gather together to talk strategy and the best routes north, Reichardt frequently films the scenes from a distance and at a low volume, as if she's observing from the sidelines where the women are usually stationed. Meek's Cutoff is not an explicitly feminist film, though WIlliams is doubtlessly the film's fierce moral conscience, but Reichardt's perspective is distinctly, unapologetically feminine, aligning us with these women with no choice but to follow a series of men toward the horzizon.
We never learn much about these couples or where they're headed, but Williams and Patton establish a nice rapport as a couple with innate trust in each other, while young and skittish Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan present a less collected response to the innate dangers of frontier life. Shirley Henderson and Neal Huff make a little less impact as the Whites, but with Greenwood rattling on constantly as the pompous Meek and Williams stealing every scene without saying a word-- her face, encased in a bonnet, remains wondrously expressive-- there's plenty of character development to get caught up in.
Like Reichardt's previous work, Meek's Cutoff demands a certain stillness and acceptance from the viewer-- plenty of people are going to walk out of this complaining that "nothing happens," and the enigmatic ending may draw more groans than that spinning top in Inception. But anyone who marveled at Wendy and Lucy's quiet dissembling of the American dream will be equally captivated by Meek's Cutoff, which brings up many of the same questions Westerns have been addressing for decades-- about leadership and the Other and the challenge to maintain society in the wilderness-- but with a restraint that makes it profound all over again.
More Cinema Blend coverage from the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival right here.