I’m not exaggerating when I say that Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff was one the films I anticipated most at this year’s Sundance. Believe it or not, I didn’t even know who made up the majority of the principle cast, which I now know includes Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Bruce Greenwood and Will Patton. What made me anticipate this movie so excitedly was the repairing of Reichardt and Michelle Williams. After the devastating portrait of a women and her dog with no home, Wendy and Lucy in 2008, I would watch anything the pair do together. What I love about Ms. Reichardt’s films is her ability to capture complex situations and emotions in simplistic, minimalistic way. In Old Joy, barely a word is spoken but through her filmmaking, everything is understood. This is what I was hoping for in Meek’s Cutoff, and I got it.
While the film is a western, absolutely, it’s not what one thinks of when considering the genre. There aren’t cowboys. There’s only one Indian. There’s no shoot outs, corrals, or violence. There are only three families, with their three covered wagons, heading across the plain in hopes of reaching Oregon. But they’re lost.
In a similar fashion to Gus van Sant’s Gerry, we get to watch these pioneers as their spirits sink lower and lower while they walk around in beautiful, but extremely harsh environments. But Reichardt used even less music than van Sant did. The film is nearly silent besides the dialog and the sound of cows pulling wagons. One of the most striking decisions was to film the movie in 1.33 aspect ratio. It seems this was intended to encourage a documentary-type feel (a theory supported by the fact the story is based on a true story, on journals kept by the women at the time).
I was doubtful about its usefulness, but Reichardt’s ability to compose shot after beautiful shot in this framing won me over quickly. Her camera spies on these pioneers from different distances. Sometimes, at the height of the current on screen drama, we only get to see the action from a great ways off, as if the audience is meant to be following them in a literal sort of way.
Williams is the anchor of the outstanding cast. Her performance is gritty and stalwart. She easily gives Hailee Steinfeld a run for her money. Though the dialog for all the actors is kept at a minimum, usually background noise to some other focus the camera is maintaining, there’s no need for it as these actors can move mountains without saying anything. Seeing Paul Dano in an environment so similar to that of There Will Be Blood almost makes it feel like he’s playing the same character, and has just wandered into a new story.
Like Wendy and Lucy, Reichardt seems to be exploring more where Americans are finding themselves in their own country. These hungry pioneers are put at crossroads, meant to sympathize, empathize, and more highlighted in the film itself, determine the threat of a dark skinned Indian who doesn’t speak their language. The allegories are there if you want to look that deeply. And you should want to look that deeply. As Sophia Coppola surprised everyone with the multi-layered Somewhere that is surely a marked change in the maturity of her work, Kelly Reichardt has done that as well. She has created a thoughtful, and intimate narrative that should demand as much as attention as Wendy and Lucy.