Westward Slow

Manifest destiny takes a hard turn to trouble in Meek's Cutoff, a somber,
sobering new take on the Western by Kelly Reichardt
EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES: Shirley Henderson (from left), Zoe Kazan and Michelle Williams in 'Meek's Cutoff' learn that winning the West isn't that easy.

FOR EVERY Jim Bridger or Kit Carson, there must have been a dozen fools like the hoarse-voiced, lying guide Stephen Meek. Director Kelly Reichardt's neo-Western Meek's Cutoff shows us a group helpless in the hands of a moody and not quite sane mountain man.

In the 1840s, Meek (Bruce Greenwood) leads a small group of pioneers on a hazardous shortcut off the Oregon Trail, through terrain too far away from the Columbia River. With their oxen, the small group trudges through the sagebrush. The water is alkaline, and the chance of Piute attack increases. "Even Indians despise these Indians," Meek says—not that his opinion means anything.

Befitting Reichardt's smaller scale, there is just one Indian (Ron Rondeaux), an injured brave taken as a hostage by the whites. He's as foreign as he can be: either unable or unwilling to communicate. Is he just one of a war party? No one can tell. And Meek, a foaming racist, knows no sign language.

The real-life Meek lost two dozen pioneers during a larger trek. For reasons of budget or focus, the group in the film consists of just three wagons. On them are three women, posed together like the Three Fates. Wide sunbonnets mask their faces and, symbolically, their emotions—and everything else women of the time weren't permitted to express.

The milestones along the way are the losses of prized possessions. Millie (Zoe Kazan), the softest and most childlike of the three women, brought a caged canary with her. Just as in Francis Parkman's account of the Oregon Trail, furniture is left behind to lighten the load. Shirley Henderson plays a pregnant traveler with a long-suffering look. Reichardt gives another major part to Michelle Williams (Wendy and Lucy) as Emily, perhaps the canniest of the ladies. She volunteers to mend the Indian's torn moccasin, and not out of Christian kindness. Stabbing it with a needle and thread, she mutters, "I want him to owe me something."

It's a hell trip, a pioneer Wages of Fear, and one's blood runs cold watching it. The husbands (Paul Dano, Will Patton and Neal Huff) stay the course, dividing up the water and ignoring the endless "screek" sound the axles make.

Meek's Cutoff has something of the sun-struck trances of Nicolas Roeg's 1971 Australian outback trek film Walkabout, as well as some touches of the avant-garde film's man of the hour, Terrence Malick. Like Malick, Reichardt is a director who lets the wind speak for itself.

An anti-Western, like a Western, has room to play with history. The real Meek, who ran a butcher shop in Santa Cruz for a while, wouldn't have survived a week if he were this fiercely incompetent.

Yet the film's focus on the pioneer women is more than overdue. At Sundance, Reichardt said she wanted to make a Western seen through the eyes of the person who made soup for John Wayne (wasn't that Walter Brennan?). Raoul Walsh's The Big Trail (1930) created the Hollywood convention of a stalwart Wayne in beautifully tailored buckskins. That film about the Oregon Trail, with its use of vast spectacle, is the perfect opposite to Meek's Cutoff. The Big Trail's winching up of a half-dozen huge Conestoga wagons over steep stone cliffs compares to the destruction of just one of the wagons in Meek's Cutoff—a lesser crash, but it serves the purpose effectively.

I wonder if the end of Meek's Cutoff isn't a similar crash. Having made a movie full of excitement and integrity, Reichardt decided to leave the ending open. It's similar to the limbo John Sayles left us with in his film of that name. (It's the kind of gesture that can keep a director on the film-festival circuit for good.)

Questioned about the ending at Sundance, Reichardt justified her own cutoff. She said, "We all know how it ends." Namely, the West gets settled eventually. That kind of logic could be a game for Twitter. I'll start: Why watch the last reel of Casablanca if you know the Germans eventually lose the war?

Meek's Cutoff

PG; 104 min.

Opens May 13

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