With a cast toplined by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, and featuring Bruce Greenwood, Zoe Kazan and Will Patton, don’t let the big names fool you. For her third feature, director Kelly Reichardt doesn’t veer too wildly from her previously minimal and low-key films “Old Joy” and “Wendy & Lucy.” But it is her first period piece, and though it’s an impeccably detailed western, “Meek’s Cutoff” is a dramatically inert look at a small group of pilgrims crossing America in the mid-1800s.
The film opens with the group of travelers fording a river, traveling through the parched landscape and camping for the night. In the morning, they continue to travel forth, quietly and stoically. They make camp for the night and eat dinner. The next day, more of the same. Reichardt’s approach serves to show the deadening length and repetition of their journey but it also makes for a film that, at 90 minutes, also feels dull, and well, repetitive. Eventually we learn that their guide, the titular Stephen Meek (an unrecognizable Bruce Greenwood), seems to be lost. His estimate of a two-week crossing has turned into five long weeks with no town in sight and water running in short supply. Things take a turn when a Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) is spotted. He is quickly rounded up and though faced with a communication barrier, the group, lost and needing any help they can get, negotiate what they hope is a deal for the Indian to lead them to water and in the direction of civilization.
Through Reichardt’s patient approach, what emerges is a beautifully observed film that accurately displays the rough hewn life of the pilgrim and the gender roles of the time. In a couple of telling, early scenes, the men stand slightly out of the camp talking amongst themselves about what to do with Meek (they consider hanging him for taking them off course) and how to proceed on their journey. But the discussion is shot from the perspective of the women, looking at them from afar, quietly, wondering what they are deciding. With the mens’ voices very low, even the audience only hears snatches of dialogue and it’s a finely tuned and effective moment that transmits the ordered power structure of the group. In other scenes like Williams grinding coffee by hand in the dark of the early morning or the almost pitch black darkness of campfire scenes, Reichardt’s quest for realism shines through.
But, even the strong emphasis on historical accuracy, and with Reichardt’s carefully built pacing, the film is otherwise dramatically inert. At its worst, the film plays like “Oregon Trail: The Movie,” but as a whole, the scenes eventually don’t coalesce into anything substantive. While there is a subtext that addresses the current political approach in the Middle East, the message isn’t particularly powerful or remarkable. And while the performances are ace, Williams in particular as the headstrong woman of the group, they serve a story that barely moves forward over the 90-minute run time. It should probably be noted here that other than Greenwood and Williams, the rest of the cast are largely left to the background with very little in the way of dialogue.
While we admired the film, in particular how it was shot (the glorious Academy ratio helped recall great, classic westerns of yore; full kudos to cinematographer Chris Blauvelt), it’s a hard film to really feel something about. For all of Reichardt’s period accuracy, it simply doesn’t translate (in this case) into compelling cinema. “Meek’s Cutoff” takes us on a fascinating journey through America’s frontier heartland but it isn’t quite sure what it wants to show us. [B-]