Kelly Reichardt teams up with writer Jon Raymond once again and plunges us into the dark side of the American dream, except the stakes in this story are considerably higher: it’s set on the Oregon Trail in 1845.
“Exaggeration is the neighbor to a lie,” Glory White (Shirley Henderson) tells her son, who has just found a gold nugget and insisted that there are “buckets more” where it came from. Exaggeration, or, rather false hope—be it Steven Meek (Bruce Greenwood)’s highly improbable tales of battles with bears and Indians or Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams)’s assertion that water is just over the next hill—is all that’s keeping these families alive in their utterly hopeless situation.
Kelly Reichardt teams up with writer Jon Raymond once again and plunges us into the dark side of the American dream, except the stakes in this story are considerably higher: it’s set on the Oregon Trail in 1845. Three families follow their rugged, tall-tale telling guide, the ironically named Meek, through the Oregon desert. It’s soon established, though, that Meek’s credibility isn’t what the families originally thought, and as water rations run low, their situation becomes especially desperate. Meek’s Cutoff plods along at a painfully grueling pace, punctuated by the creaking of wagon wheels. Our only relief from the characters’ anguish is the scorched scenery of the Oregon desert, as depicted through Reichardt’s painterly lens. (I left the theater feeling as thirsty and dirty as the characters, perhaps a testament to the film’s success).
The particular discomfort of being a woman on the journey is felt watching the three tired wives (one pregnant), up before dawn, tending breakfast fires. We feel their anxiety as they listen for snippets of the mens’ conversations about where they’re headed. Aesthetically, the billowy dresses in the desert create some of the film’s most gorgeous scenes, such as the 30 seconds or so focused on chasing after handkerchief that’s been caught in the wind, or Millie Gately (Zoe Kazan) forging a river, holding a birdcage with a canary inside high above her head.
Meek and Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton) capture a Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux), who, despite the bloodthirsty Meek’s request that he be killed, is kept prisoner in hopes that he will guide them to water. After days following him, questions begin to arise. Is the Cayuse purposely misleading them out of vengeance? Is he leaving signs, in the form of cliff-side drawings and piles of stones, to communicate with his tribe? These unanswered questions bring about a sense of dread and a fear for both the emigrants and the Cayuse, despite the romance of Reichardt’s desert. Without leaning too far into the realm of morality tale, Meek’s Cutoff reminds us of our country’s brutal history: America is a strange land steeped in greed, paranoia, and Meek-like folk heroes that embody these traits.
Check out Meek’s Cutoff tonight at the New York Film Festival.