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Unhappy Trails

film_meeksPioneers head for nowhere in undeveloped ‘Meek’s Cutoff’

How far can you blame an artist for trying to do something artistic? Even if the resulting work doesn’t play out the way one hopes, an artist deserves some grudging respect for pursuing a particular vision. Take Kelly Reichardt, who makes small, personal films set in Oregon, in which nothing much happens. In Old Joy, two former buddies find they have little to talk about any more on a weekend hiking trip into the Cascades. In Wendy and Lucy, a young woman adrift between jobs loses her dog.

Like these films, Reichardt’s latest, Meek’s Cutoff, is scrupulously composed, full of respect for the natural world, and concerned with minute, almost non-verbal relationships. It, too, is set in the Pacific Northwest, but unlike Reichardt’s previous films, this is a historical drama in the Oregon Territory of 150 years ago.

The characters are settlers from the east in a small wagon train in search of the Willamette Valley, although this premise doesn’t really impart much more action than is usually found in a Reichardt film. She’s at her best in conveying the sheer arduousness of life on the trail, the day-to-day minutiae and stoic resolve of pioneers venturing into the vast unknown—quite literally without a road map. It’s in the larger picture that her film becomes problematic.

Part morality play, part vaguely realized political allegory, with a few trace elements of proto-feminism sprinkled in, the film unspools largely without dialogue, especially in the first 15 minutes. A sense of period is nicely captured in the title card, a hand-drawn parchment map, marked “Meek’s Cutoff.” It turns out that Stephen Meek is a garrulous, tale-spinning old pioneer guide in long, grizzled hair and buckskins leading the mini-wagon train, who may or may not actually know where he’s going. (Or, according to one briefly overheard conversational snippet, may or may not be in the pay of some other party who doesn’t want the settlers to reach their destination.) As played by Bruce Greenwood in a long, bushy wig and whiskers, he’s a venomous, bigoted old windbag who seems to be channeling Gabby Hayes, without the laughs.

A handful of easterners are following him deeper and deeper into the vast, deserted Oregon wilderness. The pluckiest is Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), the newer, younger wife of even-tempered widower Soloman Tetherow (Will Patton), whom the others look up to. Emily rises to every challenge, bakes extra skillet bread for the others if she can spare it, and is sensible enough that Soloman routinely confides in her about the misgivings of the men. Anxious young Thomas (Paul Dano), traveling with his girlish young wife (Zoe Kazan), is always looking for someone to blame for their predicament. The third party consists of a deeply religious man who prays every day with his pregnant young wife (British actress Shirley Henderson, of all people) and young son.

Tensions mount—very slowly—within this tiny social microcosm as Reichardt makes points about how far we can trust a dubious leader who may not know what he’s doing (“Is he ignorant, or is he just plain evil?” Emily wonders about Meek), and what (if anything) we have the power to do about it. Things are further complicated when the party captures a lone, stray Indian (Ron Rondeaux) who triggers various degrees of fear, hatred, and paranoia within the group, while driving the more stalwart Emily to a series of moral choices.

But otherwise, there’s not much going on in this movie besides the drudgery, repetition, and uncertainty of pioneer life. The natural world, however forbidding, looks beautiful onscreen, and Reichardt manages some evocative composition, like a distant glimpse of the three begowned women floating across the prairie like angels. She also wants us to experience the passive role assigned to women of the era (no matter how hard they actually work, up before dawn to light the campfires), the frustrating sense of dependence, eternally waiting just out of earshot while the men make all the decisions.film_meekscutoff

And we do, indeed, share their frustration, stuck as we are, waiting for a story that never develops beyond its premise.

MEEK’S CUTOFF

★★1/2 (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>

With Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, and Will Patton. Written by Jon Raymond. Directed by Kelly Reichardt. An Oscilloscope release. Rated PG. 104 minutes.

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