Meek's Cutoff is the latest ponderous, gorgeously shot film from the minimalist indie director Kelly Reichardt, whose two previous films—2006's Old Joy and 2008's Wendy & Lucy—were striking examples of her delicately academic approach to cinema and interest in exploring journeying characters in moments of despair (existential, personal, psychological).
Reichardt, who is a professor of film at Bard College, makes films that are spare, simple, reflective, and yet deeply affecting. Meek's Cutoff is perhaps her most mesmerizing film yet. With the patience and experimental spirit of Gus Van Sant and the naturalistic style and existential curiosity of Terrence Malick, Reichardt has emerged as one of the great up-and-coming auteurs in cinema.
Set in 1845 Oregon, in the early days of the Oregon Trail, Meek's Cutoff follows the covered wagon journey of three families and the mountain man guide (Stephen Meek) who is leading them through the wilderness on the way to the Willamette Valley. From the beginning of the film, our protagonists are seemingly lost, running out of water, facing Oregon Trail-style challenges (broken axles, hungry oxen, forging rivers). They are suspicious that Meek doesn't really know where they are going. As the film progresses, frustration increases and despair sets in. The party capture an Indian, keeping him prisoner and using him as a guide. But is he any more reliable than Meek? Is he leading them in the right direction? Or to their doom?
What's magnificent about the film is that it puts us exactly in the shoes of these hapless frontier sojourners. There is no God's eye view or knowing narrator that gives the audience a privileged perspective. We know what they do, we discover things as they do. When they look nervously or quizzically at their Indian prisoner, we ponder just as they do.
Reichardt's minimalist style reflects camerawork that is not indifferent; just restrained, observational. Her shots are unembellished and yet certainly personal, aligning in particular with the feminine gaze of the film's center of gravity: Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams). In the deeply expressive eyes of Williams (who also starred in Reichardt's last film, Wendy & Lucy), we recognize our own blend of empathy, fear, disgust, repression and longing.
But this isn't a film about one heroine's point of view; it's a film about our point of view. How do we read images? Reichardt recognizes the inherent ambiguity of the photographed image--that in as much as it captures reality in some sense, it also opens up the possibilities of interpreted reality. Each film shot captures something we can recognize: wagons moving along a horizontal plan, a woman gathering wood for a fire, clouds billowing across a big western sky. And yet it's also ambiguous. What do we read into the faces that we see? Do we interpret the desert landscape as something fearsome and ominous? Or beautiful and stately? What lies beyond the four edges of a film's rectangular frame? The nature of cinema is suggestion and open-endedness, and Reichardt seizes upon this in Meek's Cutoff.
What exactly is this film about? Can we read political subtext into it? Commentary on race relations? A feminist perspective? Each viewer likely will see something different in it, and yet something profound. In that way, it succeeds in the same way a film like Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon does: Capturing palpable mood, tension, very real actions and emotions, and yet totally open to interpretation and actively involving the viewer in the process of decoding its meaning. The ambiguity of it will frustrate some and enthrall others. I definitely fall in the latter camp.