Meek’s Cutoff has all but cemented Kelly Reichardt’s standing in my eyes as the finest American director working today. If not, she is certainly the most promising and unique. Once again she utilizes her trademark minimalist style, using natural lighting and sound and sparse dialogue to really bring us into the mindset of these pioneers on the Oregon Trail. She creates an experience so immersive that it’s easy to forget we are watching a movie as we quickly become just another member of this group, braving this terrifying trek right alongside them. We can taste the dirt, feel the sun falling down on our back, experience every ounce of desolation these travelers feel.
The film works entirely as a study into a world we haven’t seen much of on film before and Reichardt brings us so accurately into their experience, but it also works as a stark political and social commentary. These pioneers are following a leader, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), whose leadership has come under much persecution. After a long journey where the group feels lost and hopeless, it seems clear that Meek no longer has a grasp on how to lead. He trails into rambles about his past conquests and contradicting beliefs on what to do next. He could be a madman, an idiot, a betrayer or he could know exactly what he’s doing. The most terrifying aspect of all is that any of these are equally as possible as the next. Meek is a man who has gone so far into his own head that he know longer has a grasp on the people he is supposed to be leading.
Reichardt expertly places us into the world of these pioneers, but most impressive is how she places us into the eyes of the women on the trail. There are several moments where she’ll place the camera in the middle of the female portion of the group, as they stand silent while the men discuss their fates. We stand with them and try to listen in on the men talking many feet away, deciding our next move with no consideration for how we feel.
For the second time in a row, Reichardt works with her muse Michelle Williams, further claiming her throne atop any other actress this side of the Atlantic. Williams and her character, Emily Tetherow, are absolutely remarkable here. In a time where women are groomed to stand by and let their husbands do the work, Emily is filled with more grit and determination than any man we meet here. She stands strong in her beliefs and when she holds a gun at you, there’s a genuine belief that she isn’t afraid to pull the trigger. Williams is a master of emotions and vulnerability, and no other actress has as firm of a grasp on their skill set as she does, which she implements to great levels here. She can do more with a look than most others can do with a multi-page dialogue, as she displays in several scenes here. Moments of desolation, frustration and determination are made all the more poignant just by Reichardt holding the lens on Williams’ face. It’s a powerhouse performance and one that displays the great range she is capable of.
The ending of this picture is one that’s sure to spark many a debate among it’s audience. It’s one that initially hits most with a moment of great frustration, but those who can admire Reichardt’s vision are quickly able to accept it’s brilliance. Without trying to spoil much, our group comes across a very interesting tree, one that is half dead and half alive, the first landmark we see in many days. As many of our group have lost all hope that we’ll find water, we are met with a perplexing moment. This could either be a beacon of hope that life is just around the corner or an omen that death is bearing down on our backs.
Reichardt’s greatest move is that she gives us no resolution, further digging us into the trenches with these pioneers. Because on the trail there is no ending. You could fall victim to the land at any moment or you could finally reach your destination, filled with new opportunity and a new life for yourself. Reichardt’s finest stroke is keeping us in this experience with them, left with a haunting hold onto Williams’ worried face that is sure to stick with you. A startling revelation from a true American auteur.