Published: May 18, 2011
Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Opens May 20 at the Charles Theatre
Manifest destiny sounds like overburdened old wooden furniture. At least it does according to director Kelly Reichardt in her hypnotic Western Meek’s Cutoff. A trio of families follows the navigational advice of Wild West wrangler Meek (Bruce Greenwood buried under beard, hair, and hate) and splits off from an Oregon wagon train on a shortcut west. Cutoff picks up with them already firmly lost, walking through arid stretches of Oregon looking for water. For almost the entire movie, the only thing you hear is the gently deafening rustle of hooves and shoes on dry, cracked soil, a forward motion haunted by a grisly creak creak creak of wagons’ wooden wheels.
Reichardt collaborator Jonathan Raymond based his script on actual events, and cinematographer Chris Blauvelt does an exquisite job capturing the landscape’s at times forbiddingly bleak beauty. But under Reichardt’s patient direction, Meek’s Cutoff is even less of a Western than Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. Instead, like her Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, it’s a road movie less interested in the journey or the destination than what happens in the mind while en route, and as such approaches the perhaps frustratingly enigmatic metaphysics of Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop.
The trio of families—Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan), William and Glory White (Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson) with their son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson), and Solomon and Emily Tetherow (Will Patton and Michelle Williams)—start off almost interchangeable. They’re all leaving something behind and searching for something different. All the women are dressed the same, in long skirts and severely snug brimmed bonnets. And now that they haven’t seen water for days and don’t know when they’re supposed to get to where they’re going, they’re all starting to doubt the bragging, pompous, smooth-talking Meek.
As for plot, that’s pretty much it: Under Meek’s questionable guidance they walk by day and sleep by night; Emily sees a Native American man (Rod Rondeaux) whom Meek thinks they need to hunt down and kill before he does the same to them. What ensues is something like a battle of wills playing out with a nearly excruciating patience: Women scrounge kindling, cook, walk; the men meet just out of earshot to discuss the day’s course of action; Reichardt frames this nearly repetitive journey against a backdrop that constantly vibrates between the breathtaking and the hostile depending on what is or isn’t going on. And like these travelers, at the movie’s end you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen next, but getting to that point has left you irrevocably changed.
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