Kelly Reichardt has been making low-budget features since the mid-nineties, but her international breakthrough came in 2006 with the sly, subtle ‘Old Joy’ (starring musician Will Oldham). Her reputation was further enhanced by ‘Wendy & Lucy,’ a heart-rending sketch of a young woman’s alienation, one of the standout films of 2009.
Her latest, ‘Meek’s Cutoff,’ maintains the minimalist aesthetic, but significantly expands her scope: a period piece – a Western – with a notable ensemble cast, including Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, and Will Patton.
The Oregon Trail, 1845. Three settler families have struck out from the main route, hoping to lay claim to fertile pastures, but as the promised shortcut (the ‘cutoff’ of the title) leads them deeper into the wilderness, their journey degenerates into an increasingly urgent search for water. Emily (Michele Williams) begins to doubt the decisions of the menfolk and their deference to Meek, their dandyish blowhard of a guide (Bruce Greenwood, enjoying himself). She lets her views become known when the capture of a Native American raises questions that split the camp: how should they treat this savage? should they trust him? will he lead them to water, or to their demise?
Picking up from revisionist westerns of the Seventies, like McCabe & Mrs Miller, Soldier Blue, Bad Company, Reichardt undermines the myth of ‘manifest destiny’ by a simple realist strategy of rooting the action in domestic realities and intimate, personal details drawn from the diaries of the female settlers. It is emphatically a feminist version of the genre – several notable scenes show the womenfolk kicking their heels as their spouses take themselves off to discuss the important decisions – but it cuts deeper than that.
A dense, existential fable about the challenge of faith in the face of the unknown, an unknown which includes the simple intentions of your fellow (hu)man.
Meek’s Cutoff is released in UK cinemeas from Friday (April 14th).
a shorter version of this review was published in the Mexican web-magazine, enfilme