1845: It's another hard day somewhere in Oregon, and no one is talking. The only sounds are the heavy groaning of the wheels and the endless wind howling over the high desert. In thick muslin dresses, their faces begrimed beneath severe bonnets, the women walk behind the covered wagons, three of them each pulled by a team of labouring oxen. One of the men pauses before a grey hunk of driftwood, then removes his knife and scratches over the ashen surface a single word: "LOST."
So begins Meek's Cutoff, the latest in Kelly Reichardt's string of remarkable road movies, where the physical and mental landscapes become all of a piece, and the crossroad is that still point where lingering hope intersects with quiet desperation. Wendy and Lucy located it in the Oregon of today, but here we return to yesteryear, and to a fictional interpretation of an historical fact - a wagon-train of pioneers led on an ill-advised shortcut by their very misguided guide. En route, what emerges is the kind of film, rich in paradox, that's common to Reichardt but so rare anywhere else - a film ponderously slow in pace yet kinetically charged with insight; starkly realistic yet allegorical too; psychologically astute yet politically resonant.
Consider the first words that finally break the opening silence: A young boy is reading the "east of Eden" passage from Genesis. The realism is evident - the Bible would have been the only book in the pioneers' possession. However, simultaneously and without the strain, the scene also enjoys an allegorical boost - this small group, and by extension an emerging nation, self-banished from the sanctuary of civilization and plodding on in quest of an elusive paradise. But whom to follow? Their ostensible guide, surely. Behind his long hair and full beard, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) is all buckskin and braggadocio, repeatedly insisting, "We're not lost. We're just finding our way." Like other more recent leaders, he specializes in the politics of fear, telling scary tales about the terrorizing "savages" and warning that, "The hills is filled with Indians, my friends."
The days drag on, the water runs perilously low, and the picture settles into its female point of view. So we watch Meek, and the other men, as the women do - from a middle distance, half-hearing conversations fraught with words like "possibly" and "should have" and "I reckon," the speakers bent over in postures of doubt and indecision. Yes, the women's lot is to accede to the men and to work like slaves. But since their work is essential, it also gives them, if not mastery, at least a certain power. Emily (the superb Michelle Williams, even more contained than in Wendy and Lucy) wields that power with a pragmatist's hand, and, in the pitch black of night, she can be heard whispering to her husband, "Is Meek ignorant or just plain evil? That's my quandary."
Her quandary deepens when the parched group happens on and then captures a lone Indian, whereupon a further debate rages. Meek is trigger-quick with his recommendation: Shoot him to death. An older man, aptly named Solomon, suggests a different course: Follow him to water. Emily shapes the debate by giving the captive some precious water and mending his torn moccasins, not out of liberal sentiment but for purely practical reasons: "I want him to owe me something." Once again, then, the allegorical bubbles up from the real, and the larger question of how to treat the indigenous peoples divides into its competing strands: Whether to regard them as a threat to be exterminated or to build a healthier relationship of mutual need. History, alas, leaves no doubt about the preferred choice.
In this case, though, the question is filled with suspense that Reichardt, even amid the abundant silence and her often still camera, manages to build exponentially right through to the end. There, a young country faces a fork in the road, wondering where to put its trust: in the flaws of a familiar leader, in the hope of a complete stranger, or in the love of an invisible God. Coming on to two centuries later, the road may be paved now, but the wondering continues.
- Directed by Kelly Reichardt
- Written by Jon Raymond
- Starring Michelle Williams and Bruce Greenwood
- Classification: G
Meek's Cutoff opens Friday at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox for a six-day run (part of the May 12-17 Lightbox retrospective Wandering, Wondering: The Films of Kelly Reichardt), with a wider commercial release to follow.