If there are any filmmakers working today who hold a greater aversion to cinematic artifice than Kelly Reichardt, they'd have no choice but to be documentarians. In her previous pictures, 2007's "Old Joy" and 2008's "Wendy and Lucy
," Reichardt's screenplay collaborations with Jon Raymond have produced impressive results, both of them meditative, raw, uncompromising and deeply human. With "Meek's Cutoff," Raymond handles the writing duties solo, and, while unconfirmed, this may be where the fiercely independent female auteur has run into a snag. The film, zapping the viewer clear back to 1845 Oregon, is so stringently and defiantly rigid in its attempted snapshot of authenticity that no welcoming entrance into the story can be detected. Characters are handed no back stories and no development outside of what is physically seen through their day-to-day chores and travels. Actors are given very, very minimal dialogue, asked to just "be" in front of the camera. The premise unravels slowly and effectively, but with no one to learn about, no relationships built beyond a trace, and no historical context besides the setting and year, it becomes next to impossible to connect to the proceedings on either an emotional or intellectual level.
Led by enigmatic, horseback-riding mountain man Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), three wagon families crossing west across the Oregon desert hope to ultimately reach civilization. With food and water scarce and harsh conditions all around, the emigrantsEmily (Michelle Williams) and Soloman Tetherow (Will Patton); Thomas (Paul Dano) and Millie Gateley (Zoe Kazan); and William (Neal Huff) and pregnant Glory White (Shirley Henderson) with young son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson)begin to question if Meek truly knows where he is guiding them. When a cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) joins their haul, the group splinters as their trust in this interloper is tested. In standing up for what she believes to be right, Emily discovers a strength and perseverance in her she wasn't sure she had.
Starkly beautiful cinematography by Chris Blauvelt and a haunting, low-key music score by Jeff Grace (2009's "The House of the Devil
") cannot veil the notion that "Meek's Cutoff" would have been a deeper, more affecting motion picture had director Kelly Reichardt been more interested in exploring her characters. As is, they are but world-weary faces, at times indistinguishable due to the propensity for establishing and medium shots over intimate close-ups. They walk. They gather water. They maneuver their wagons down perilous rocky hills. They sew. They look out at a desolate landscape that doesn't appear to be changing any time soon. What they don't do is grow as people, with the exquisite Michelle Williams (2010's "Blue Valentine
") the only one with a detectable arc. Even so, how has Emily and her fellow travelers found themselves in such a dire position? Where have they come from? What did they do before they left? What are they hoping to find? By the time things have really gotten bleak for the lot of them and tensions have palpably risen, the film concludes. It's an open-ended finale that no doubt stirs in one's mind afterwards, making the point that none of these souls have any power over the fates they've been heading toward, but that's not quite enough of a payoff to make the 100 previous minutes any less disappointing. "Meek's Cutoff" is a promising, intermittently entrancing film that the viewer wishes could have made more of an impact than it does.