'Meek's Cutoff': An Old West, Captured For A New Era

The Good, The Bad, And The Women: Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine, Brokeback Mountain) goes West again as Emily Tetherow, a bold settler with doubts about the guide hired to lead her party over the Cascade Mountains.

The Good, The Bad, And The Women: Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine, Brokeback Mountain) goes West again as Emily Tetherow, a bold settler with doubts about the guide hired to lead her party over the Cascade Mountains. Oscilloscope Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Oscilloscope Pictures

Meek's Cutoff

  • Director: Kelly Reichardt
  • Genre: Western
  • Running Time: 104 minutes

Rated PG for rude humor, language, action and smoking

With: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Zoe Kazan

(Recommended)

In the fuzzy-bordered film business now known as Indiewood, it's become all the rage for A-list leading ladies, in the interests of polishing their street cred, to step up for "edgy" roles in movies budgeted under $50 million. Movies budgeted under $2 million? That's another story.

But there's one bankable star who, without fanfare, has hitched her wagon to a filmmaker who's virtually unknown outside the narrow circle of extreme-indie cinephiles and critics. Hitched quite literally this time: Meek's Cutoff, the second movie Michelle Williams has made with director Kelly Reichardt, is an inverted wagon-wheel Western with unrepentantly feminist leanings.

Don't stop reading, lads — punches are thrown, Indians are tied up and all that. But it's the women who get to be strong, silent and occasionally proactive with a gun.

Reichardt is a gifted visual poet who's been around for a while, crafting exquisitely landscaped microbudget movies about marginalized loners on the move in search of better lives. If you're new to her work, you might start with her terrific 1994 debut, the offbeat gumshoe yarn River of Grass. Work forward through Old Joy (2006), about two former college buddies trying to rekindle a doomed friendship on a camping trip through Oregon, to Wendy and Lucy (2008), a spare post-Katrina tale of a homeless young woman heading West with her dog.

Williams' attachment to that project brought Reichardt her first decent funding, and for Meek's Cutoff it has given her a stellar supporting ensemble that includes Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Will Patton and the wonderful British actress Shirley Henderson — better known as Moaning Myrtle, the floaty ghost of Hogwarts School.

But it's Williams who's front and center in this loosely fact-based movie about three families struggling along the Oregon Trail in 1845. As Emily Tetherow, the quietly determined wife of Patton's de facto leader, Williams has dulled her blond hair down to a lank brown, and her pixie features, rounded into anonymity, peer out of a flapping bonnet that's unflattering enough to make anyone look like Bo Peep on a bad hat day.

The settlers' party also includes Thomas Gately (Paul Dano, left) and William White (Neal Huff), who struggle to decide whether Bruce Greenwood's Meek is trustworthy. i i

The settlers' party also includes Thomas Gately (Paul Dano, left) and William White (Neal Huff), who struggle to decide whether Bruce Greenwood's Meek is trustworthy. Oscilloscope Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Oscilloscope Pictures
The settlers' party also includes Thomas Gately (Paul Dano, left) and William White (Neal Huff), who struggle to decide whether Bruce Greenwood's Meek is trustworthy.

The settlers' party also includes Thomas Gately (Paul Dano, left) and William White (Neal Huff), who struggle to decide whether Bruce Greenwood's Meek is trustworthy.

Oscilloscope Pictures

It's Emily, at once truculent and vulnerable in that Michelle Williams way, who first expresses a shrewd mistrust of the wagoners' hired guide Stephen Meek — the excellent Greenwood — an aggressive blowhard whose confidence exceeds his navigating skills by a wide margin.

As rugged individualists go, Meek is a nightmare, and in due course Emily finds herself in a three-way face-off with him and a captured Native American (Rod Rondeaux) that plays out in near-total silence. (The pared-down script is by Oregon fiction writer Jon Raymond, who also wrote Todd Haynes' remake of Mildred Pierce, currently airing on HBO.)

Shot in a livid yellow light, Meek's Cutoff has a minimalist string score overlaid with magnified ambient noise — the rush of a river over rocks, the creak and crunch of a wagon wheel over parched land. And there's the glint of gold, pulling this group forward long after they have no idea where they're going.

But if Meek's Cutoff is every inch a Western, it's an art-film mutant of the genre, inching along with intensely naturalistic obsession for detail that courts tedium even as it dares us not to pay attention. Based on the diaries of real women on the Oregon Trail, the film dwells on the endlessly repeated routines of a woman's life on the move — the effortful grind of packing, unpacking, cooking the same dreary meals, all without a say in whether to push on through unknown terrain or search for water to replace the group's dwindling supply.

When violence comes, it's swift, visceral and blind to gender; Reichardt strips away the sentimental psychology of the woman's movie as ruthlessly as she undercuts the hypermasculine romance of the Western. Emily may be brave and strong, but she's no earth mother. When she sews up the Indian's torn moccasin or offers him a drink, it might be out of solidarity with another oppressed being, but it's also because "I want him to owe me something." The lethal ties that bind Emily, Meek and the Indian carry powerful echoes of America's political and cultural wars today. One way or another, there will be blood. (Recommended)

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