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When it comes to classic conflicts in cinema, few, if any, outrank the battle between Cowboys and Indians. A staple of the classic western, the politically incorrect characterization of Native Americans as blood-thirsty barbarians comes across today as not only archaic, but also immensely insensitive. Antiquated as the antagonistic relationship may be, the idea is based on historical fact, with those believing in Manifest Destiny taking land rights away from the indigenous people as whites expanded to the west and Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act resulting in the death of thousands.
Meek’s Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt, brings back the classic Whites vs. Indians conflict, but does so in a much different way than the classic sense. Backed by stunning cinematography and incredible performances, the film serves as a beautiful examination of prejudice and trust.
Set in the middle of the 19th century, three families (Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson), led by legendary mountain man Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), make their way west on the Oregon Trail. When Meek suggests a shortcut, however, the group becomes lost in the middle of the high plains desert, completely isolated from water, food and supplies. Unsure whether they should continue trusting Meek to get them to their final destination, the group encounters an Indian (Rod Rondeaux) who may be able to lead them to safety. They are then faced with a difficult choice: do they continue to put their trust in Meek, the man who put them on the wrong path in the first place, or a “savage” that could potentially be leading them into a trap?
Armed with a deliberate pace, Meek’s Cutoff is, at its most basic, a study in spectacular visuals. The movie opens with ten to fifteen minutes of silence, the audience watching as each member of the wagon train takes care of their respective duties. The focus isn’t on showing off the characters – in fact, their faces are obscured by hats, bonnets and facial hair – but rather the territory, captured elegantly in cinematographer Chris Blauvelt’s lens. Filmed exclusively with natural light, even the scenes at night provide spectacle, campfires producing flames that lick the surrounding faces and heighten tension.
An ensemble cast of the highest order, the characters in the film can be effectively described as minimalist, but each actor, Greenwood and Williams in particular, elevates them in their performance. Almost completely unrecognizable behind a wild, over-grown grey beard and shoulder-length locks, Greenwood brilliantly balances both sides of Meek, earning the audiences’ sympathies while bonding with and telling stories to the only youngin of the group, but also perfectly encapsulating a prejudicial monster who is not only outwardly aggressive and violent towards the Indian, but also outwardly afraid of him. Conversely, Williams plays a strong, resilient woman who wonderfully contrasts with the characters played by Kazan and Henderson. In allowing herself to invest her trust in their tribe’s new leader, she sets herself up to butt heads with Meek and while she appears outwardly aggressive in the defense of her choice, Williams’ performance also demonstrates that even she has her doubts but is willing to stand by her choice.
Where the film truly reaches greatness is in its themes. It’s impossible for the audience not to recognize and be disgusted by Meek’s bigotry, but what makes the story work is that the Indian’s motivations are never made clear. Throughout the movie there is paranoia abound as the nameless Native American – who doesn’t speak a word of English – draws on the sides of cliffs with stones and leaves markers at campsites. Is he practicing ritual or is he leaving signals to the rest of his tribe and leading the collection into a setup? With so much uncertainty, viewers have to rely on unfounded trust, much like the members of the wagon train, and believe that he’s not the savage that Meek insists he is.
Meek’s Cutoff is not a film that is going to appeal to wide audiences, as the slow pacing will quickly turn off sections of the population unwilling to be patient. Given a proper chance, though, Reichardt’s movie will impress with a well-told story, wonderful portrayals, incredible cinematography and impenetrable tension.