Going to see Michelle Williams at the movies can lead to some pretty morose evenings. She has a way of picking deep, layered characters in starkly realistic films that leave the audience feeling hopeless at the end. Witness last year’s “Blue Valentine,” and 2008’s “Wendy and Lucy.” Gritty, realistic films with endings that don’t argue hopelessness, but rather accept it. That’s what reality does for you. In her new release in theatres now, “Meek’s Cutoff,” Williams is not meek for a moment, nor is the director Kelly Reichardt. This film is powerful and breathtaking, frighteningly quiet in a landscape that is as terrifying as it is beautiful. Yet the film is not at all morose.
“Meek’s Cutoff” is a western of the northern variety, and far from typical. It has standard elements of wagons, oxen, horses, a donkey, high plains, big skies, and tiny human beings traveling west across an enormous, untamed frontier. From there, however, director Reichardt and writer Jon Raymond veer off the usual course.
The film is painfully realistic, painted in the dusty earth tones of the desert. Three Conestoga wagons lumber across a plain. Before a word is spoken, we see the wagons and people ford a river, the women carrying baskets and a birdcage high over their heads as they walk through the surging water that reaches up to their chests. The men drive the oxen pulling the wagons through the river. The travelers fill their barrels with the fresh, clear water. Not a word has been spoken in the film at this point. On a felled tree trunk that looks as parched as the land, a man carves letters – L O S T.
Oregon, 1845. Part American, part British, not even a territory yet. The travelers to it are "Americans" from the United States and its territories. Theirs is a small wagon train, with Mr. Stephen Meek contracted to lead three families over the Cascade Mountains. The travelers are “Americans,” but the territory is not yet. The “cutoff” of the title is Meek’s alleged shortcut off the beaten track. The cutoff is already taken, and the people are in mid quandary as we come into their story. That they’re lost is one thing; that Meek won’t admit it is another. It is the bone of contention for these determined but dependent people.
The three couples at Mr. Meek’s mercy are Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) and her husband Solomon (Will Patton). This couple converses quietly, respectfully. He does not keep secrets from his wife, unlike the other husbands. William White (Neal Huff) tries to protect his wife Glory (Shirley Henderson) in every way and she does the same for him and their son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson). Glory is far enough along in her pregnancy to make every day walking along the plain without water an even greater danger than usual, although she never complains. She runs against the wind to grab a scarf of her husband’s before it's lost to the winds, she works as hard as the other women. And the work is grueling. The third couple is the youngest, Thomas Gately (Paul Dano) and his wife Millie (Zoe Kazan). Gately is a young man trying very hard to be a good one; Millie would be hysterical if she were of a different class. As it is, hysteria from anyone on a trip like this would be deadly. Their cocky leader, Stephen Meek, dresses in buckskin with long ragged hair. He would be reminiscent of Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill, except the Bills came of age later. The actor was a mystery to me until halfway through the film, when I realized it was Bruce Greenwood. I do love it when I don’t recognize a very familiar actor.
These actors inhabit their roles, their shoes are wearing out, their skin drying and tanning. The women’s cotton and muslin dresses are lived in, billowing about their legs as they walk on cracked ground with the wind whipping all around them. The men trudge next to the oxen. No one speaks for hours at a time. All hands are ready to work for each other – when the axle of the young couple’s wagon breaks, the journey stops for breath, and all the men work to fashion a new axle.
Days are the same, except when a new danger enters. On a day like any other, the men have ridden off to look for water, and the women wander the brush surrounding their camp, bent over to gather kindling. Emily comes upon an Indian. He does and says nothing. She turns and runs back to the camp, loads a rifle (in 1845 this takes a very long time) and shoots into the sky to signal the men to return. Meek questions her closely in the growing dark, doing his best to encourage her fear. He talks on and on about the Native Americans, different tribes, different pejoratives, ugly stories of travesties. Of course, we already know Meek is not strictly truthful, so we are in the same position as the travelers – how much of what he says is to be believed.
Soon the boy Jimmy sees the lone Indian again; Meek and Tetherow ride off after him. They return hours later with the captured Indian walking bound between them – Meek says he wants to kill him; Tetherow wants to find out from him where there’s water. The need for water by now far outweighs his fear of this unknown.
Ron Rondeaux is intriguing as the Native American, listed as “The Cayuse” (the Cayuse is a tribe native to northeastern Oregon). Initially silent, he begins to speak in his own language, even sing what appears to be a healing song at one point. He watches and waits, seems to accept young Mr. Gately’s offer of barter – blankets for leading them to water. If the travelers weren’t torn before, the tension rises with the addition to their party. None of the “Americans” speak the Native American’s language, and he does not speak English. Meek shouting and threatening is clear without understanding the words, as are the more civil, cajoling tones of Tetherow and Gately. Emily Tetherow tries to make the Cayuse beholden to her by mending his torn boot. He is as fascinated by her sewing basket as by her actions. The picture of frightened Millie Gately gripping a boulder as she stares at Emily is an intimate revelation of horror.
This is an engrossing picture of the hardy folk who traveled across this untamed country. There is no distant planet in space exploration more frightening than the unexplored American desert. When a cry of water goes up, it’s from miles away. Only up close can the travelers know whether the water is potable or alkaline – if the latter, deadly to humans and animals alike.
The characters of “Meek’s Cutoff” are intense and pushed to that point where a person finds out what’s inside, like it or not. This film is like a finely wrought short story, told by the details and the depictions – of the terrain, the faces, the clothing, the hands, the wind, the shoes, the postures, the silence. Always more silence. Tension builds day by day and moment by moment, characters clashing quietly at first and finally at an impasse. The last day of the film’s story leaves it to the viewer to decide: To choose to believe that water will be found in the next day by following the captured Cayuse. Or not.
Jonathan Raymond (who also wrote “Wendy and Lucy” with Kelly Reichardt) crafted the spare script that brings the audience along on the grueling journey. The few words spoken are choice. Each character speaks only what he or she must, and can.
Director Kelly Reichardt (“Wendy and Lucy”) keeps her actors in view, sometimes at the edge of the screen. Each of them gives her a finely tuned performance. Shirley Henderson is glorious as the resilient Glory, Zoe Kazan affecting as the anxious Millie, and Michelle Williams inspiring as the powerful and strong Emily – they teach us that American women can do anything. Most Westerns are about the men, and the women are peripheral. In “Meek’s Cutoff,” if either gender is portrayed more richly than the other, it would be the women. These are some of the best performances you’ll see this or any other year. The three men, different as they can be, are also giving subtle, strong, characterizations – Patton, quiet, strong with the the kind of quiet that other men recognize and follow; Huff drawn long and tight, sacrificing, carved of knotty wood; and Dano, with hope and plans of youth, and somehow patience of age. Finally Greenwood, brilliantly unrecognizable as the dislikeable, untrustworthy Meek.
The loving care given by director and editor Reichardt to every shot, every stoic face, every frame is evident. This is a gorgeous film, a harsh film, a frightening film. And yet not morose, and not ending on a hopeless note. The hope is up to the viewer. "Meek's Cutoff" poses hard questions, without giving answers.
~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer, but not the light.