Projecting current historical concerns upon the mythic western in movies is nothing new, but Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff ventures into significant uncharted territory, both geographically and philosophically speaking. Directed by that rare figure in westerns whether in front of or behind the camera – a woman – the film gives voice to a segment of migrant settlers back then who didn’t have much of that to begin with. While touching on, though insufficiently probing persisting and troubling questions in the present about imperialist incursions, labeled Manifest Destiny back then.
The dreary scenario unfolds along the primitively carved out Oregon Trail back in 1845, as three families advance westward with their wagons, but plodding along mostly on foot towards a promised destination where fertile land for settlement is envisioned. Leading the way as hired guide is Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), that surly, macho brand of cowboy who appears overly confident that he was any idea whatsoever where they’re headed.
And as the settlers become increasingly anxious that they’re simply lost and may eventually die of thirst out on the bleak desert plains, Meek attempts to distract them along the way with elaborate tall tales and racist bravado targeting Indian tribes. Meanwhile, the families speculate among themselves about enduring this ordeal, not just in search of a promised land, but to help populate a vast wilderness so that the United States can expropriate those lands for themselves. Intimations of colonizing incursions going down in places like Palestine today, are unmistakable.
And while most of the narrative consists of walking in search of water, the settlers grow ever more suspicious of Meek’s bravado and confident claims of an approaching and certain destination. And when a lone Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) is spotted and captured, the families in desperation turn to him, despite Meek’s protests, to lead them out of the desert, after debating for some time whether to kill or exploit him.
Mounting frustrations likewise precipitate a bit of female insurrection in the ranks, out of a sheer will to survive. And leading the way in evolving from mere reticent followers who pass their time with outdoor knitting while the men make all the decisions, is Emily (Michelle Williams). Eventually moving on from knitting needles, cooking and wood gathering to gun toting, Emily bonds with their mysterious Indian guide over her sewing basket after she mends his torn moccasin, seemingly connected in their social subjugation and assigned second class citizenship.
Requiring nearly as much patience as is displayed by these adamant western nomads, Meek’s Cutoff continuously threatens to cross that fine line between absorbing the palpable emotional canvas and majestic, at times terrifying beauty of the landscape. And instead just succumbing to the vicarious visual monotony and exhaustion as viewers.
Oscilloscope Laboratories Rated PG 3 stars