Directed by Kelly Reichardt
Written by Jonathan Raymond
In the opening scene to Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, the characters stop to gather water at a river. The year is 1845, and this group of travelers are made up of three families that are traversing the treacherous Oregon Trail. After obtaining the water, they leave. Reichardt’s camera stays. She lingers on the river just long enough to fill a viewer with a sense of foreboding. This is likely the last place of refuge for miles. Everything, from here on, will be trouble.
Words are secondary to Reichardt. For the first ten minutes of the film, nobody speaks. The characters simply amble through the harsh, desert-like landscape. While this makes the story appear aimless at times, in reality Reichardt is subtly building the tension. Like the river in the opening scene, she does not overstate conflict. This is a film built on anxiety and desperation. The story begins modestly, but it eventually swells as the characters’ unease increases. In this way, Reichardt delicately wraps viewers in the suspense of her film until they are forced to feel the weight of her characters’ struggles.
One of those struggles concerns a stranger named Meeks (Bruce Greenwood) who is guiding the families along the trail. Prior to the events of the film, he promised them that he could take them through the mountains in two weeks. It has now been five weeks, and there are no mountains in sight. Though some in the group, particularly a woman named Emily (Michelle Williams), are doubtful about his navigation abilities, no one says anything. They have no knowledge of this terrain, and their guide seems confident in himself. By following Meek, they can at least derive hope from denial.
For a while, the film appears to treat Meek as a possible antagonist. With still no sign of mountains, his words seem to hold as much water as the families’ rapidly depleting barrels. But it soon becomes clear that the only real evil is nature itself. The characters are at its mercy, and they are being crushed by it. With her villain off-screen, Reichardt must work to makes its malevolence felt, and she accomplishes this seamlessly.
For instance, take the scene when the group encounters a steep hill along the trail and are forced to lower their covered wagons with rope to prevent the vehicles from losing control. Everyone’s spirits are low at this point, and their resources are scarce. As they slowly maneuver the wagon down the incline, the possibility of an accident ignites the scene with tension. And then the rope breaks. The wagon plummets and rolls over. One of the barrels of water falls out, and its contents spill onto the arid earth. Up to this point, Reichardt has raised the life-and-death stakes of her story so high that a tipped barrel hits the viewer with complete devastation.
Meek’s Cutoff may be difficult for some people to digest. The story moves at a deliberate pacing, and external action is limited to relatively few scenes. But there is not a moment of this film that does not feel charged. The characters are trapped in an uninhabitable world, and death is beginning to look like a real prospect. It is impossible not to sense their vulnerability. Their struggles are real, and Reichardt makes the viewer feel the burden of each one of them.
– Jacob Carter