Meek’s Cutoff: Michelle Williams Searches for Oregon

Tenacious indie Kelly Reichardt has specialized in quirky, minimalist quasi–road movies in which loners come unmoored in some great American space. Meek's Cutoff is that and more—one great leap into the 19th-century unknown. Directed from Jon Raymond's fact-based script, this suggestively allegorical, discreetly trippy Oregon-set 1845 Western recalls Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man in its evocation of frontier surrealism and manifest-destiny madness; the Reichardt approach is, however, more stringent and pointed in its weirdness. Chris Blauvelt's camera lingers on three settler women (Michelle Williams, Shirley Henderson, and Zoe Kazan) dutifully trudging on behind their husbands' covered wagons. Meek's Cutoff has a few beautifully understated images of cooperation as the settlers drag their wagons across the scrub brush, but the movie's major concern is the problem of bad leadership. Having split off from a larger wagon train, the party elected to follow Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), an extravagantly hirsute, self-regardingly loquacious guide who, in his most obvious misjudgment, brings them not to the foothills of the Cascade Mountains but the shores of a great saline lake. Events come to a head when the settlers stumble upon and are compelled to take captive an unarmed Indian scout. They regard this irredeemable Other with suspicion bordering on panic; at the same time, he's the material projection of the unforgiving wilderness in which they find themselves. Who will lead them out of the desert—the boastful blowhard Meek or this enigmatic native? Meek's Cutoff has a tranced-out quality, but the political implications, regarding trust given and abused, are hard to miss.

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