In 1845, three creaky wagons trundle across the stark Oregon desert, following the archetypal Western swagger-tongued swindler Stephen Meek (Greenwood) in a wearisome “shortcut” through austere, dusty plains. What began as Bible-banging pioneers chasing greener pastures has dissolved into a brutal struggle for survival, stretched out into a bone-grinding Beckett-like search, as the lost group’s fate turns increasingly grim.
Rationing water and supplies, the families progress as painfully slow as the severely minimal plot. Parched landscape and terse shots roll long and eerie, punctuated only by sparse, muttered dialogue and buried conflicts, as the group fractures under the unrelenting pressure. When they catch an Indian brave (Rondeaux), Williams’ stoic, steely-tongued Emily, believing him to be a possible guide out of this mess, saves him from the trigger-happy Meek.
The pairing of such ennobled, marginalized figures redressing history here feels a tad politically overcorrect. Locked into the infinite daily demands of scrubbing, darning, kneading and baking while barred from all decision making, the women rise as the dignified heroines, relegated to silently abide by their husbands’ decisions. In the end, a mysterious lone tree stands as the symbol of hope, placed as incongruously upon the landscape as the bonneted families.
While the film is visually stunning, after 100 aching minutes of arid plains and waning patience, an audience can’t help but feel cheated by Reichardt’s ambiguous answers.
Meek’s Cutoff | Directed by Kelly Reichardt (USA 2011) with Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Ron Rondeaux. Starts November 10