A cocksure false prophet leads a band of unfortunates through a dry and desolate wasteland. A child reads aloud from the Old Testament. And the one person with the potential to serve as a messianic figure is hogtied and treated to the constant suspicions of his captors. Welcome to the western as reconceived by Kelly Reichardt, whose previous efforts earned her a seat at the head of A.O. Scott's "neo-neo realists" of American cinema table.
In her latest film, Meek's Cutoff, the director brings her now familiar strategies to bear upon the Oregon trail and the historic failure that was Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a trail guide whose bad advice leaves those travelers foolish enough to follow him stranded without water as they move across the desert landscape of eastern Oregon. Whereas the objectively pitched camerawork in Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy often lent those films a sense that we were intimately accessing the singular consciousness of each film's protagonist, here we're placed at a distance from each member of the group, helplessly watching as the terrible yet oddly muted events transpire.
If there's any one character to hang our sympathies upon, it's Emily (Michelle Williams) who, despite being equally as miserable as her fellow travelers, at least defines herself through a selfless act of humanity, performed at the lowest point in their journey. Beyond that moment, we're denied insight into these characters, asked instead as an audience to observe and consider our own responses to such circumstances while dwelling upon what behaviors have changed over time and which of those have remained doggedly present in the culture of today.
Whether it's the insanity of groupthink, the tendency to devalue natural resources until they reach the point of scarcity or the assumptions caught up in patriarchal dominance, the problems facing these characters are not unlike the ones we face during our day to day lives. Which makes total sense, since period pieces are more often than not positioned to speak to contemporary issues, rather than poised purely as a means of reflecting upon the past. Reichardt has proven herself over the course of just a few films to be a director deeply interested in the undercurrents of her stories, favoring the cultivation of subtext rather than a routine focus on plot points. Old Joy, for instance, is just as much about the rise of partisanship during the post-9-11 Bush era as it is, on a surface level, about a friendship strained by differing ideologies.
As the characters in Meek's Cutoff move aimlessly through the Oregon wilderness, it's difficult not to view the landscape as a metaphorical space in which a perennial struggle is being reenacted. And, yes, sometimes a wagon train is just a wagon train. But, in the case of Meek's Cutoff, I'll hazard a guess that there's something deeper lurking right below the surface of this tale.
Meek's Cutoff opens in mid-April in select cities. Given it's home-grown heritage, expect it to play locally at that time in PDX.
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