A haunting meditation on existence set in the Pioneer West of 1845 Oregon, Meek’s Cutoff plunges you into a reality not your own but so tactile and vivid you begin to feel its sensations. It’s a place of tremendous hardship, whose people live exposed in the open air, gathering around campfires reading the Bible or silently eating their dinner and living a communal life of codependence that is almost incomprehensible today.
Helmed by Kelly Reichardt (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy), the film returns to the director’s exploration of human isolation, but in this go around, she expands it to examine existence itself. If Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is the hopeful, spiritual side of being, Reichardt’s is the hard-scrabble, lonely side. Her pioneer families wander into a vast void they hope will take them to a new paradise. There is the pregnant Glory (Shirley Henderson), her husband William White (Neal Huff), and their young son Jimmy (Tommy Nelson), plus young couple Thomas (Paul Dano) and Millie Gately (Zoe Kazan) and widower Soloman Tetherow (Will Patton) and his new wife Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), a woman of remarkable will and insight whose vantage guides us even as others fail.
The pioneers are led into the void by a windbag, racist, and possible lunatic called Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). As their journey continues, the families realize that Meek may have no idea where he is leading them. Or worse still, he may be purposefully leading them into a trap, wearing them down, some speculate, in order to limit the number of pioneers seeking their fortune. He’s unnaturally easygoing and confident, a distinct contrast to the strained and dirty faces of the pioneers who clearly fear for their lives.
“Is he ignorant or is he just plain evil?” Emily wonders aloud to Soloman, and the answer is never clear. Meek delights in stoking their fears, telling of the horrific tortures that await them if they fall into the hands of the Native Americans. When they finally capture one (Rod Rondeaux) who has been stalking them, Meek suggests execution. He’s a man governed by prejudices about Native Americans and about women. As they move deeper into their journey, they begin to look to the Indian for guidance instead of Meek, but you wonder if it’s just an expression of resignation or a hope that someone, anyone, has an answer to where they are going.
At first, Emily and the other women appear to be outsiders in their small community. They stand apart as the men discuss what to do about Meek. They knit beneath a canopy while the men go off in search of the Indian. But it soon becomes clear Emily is a match for any of the men. She is often the most pragmatic of all of them, tossing out the Tetherow family heirlooms when their weight becomes too much for their animals to bear, firing warning shots into the air when she gets her first glimpse of the Indian.
Meek’s Cutoff was the recent subject of a think piece in The New York Times called “In Defense of the Slow and the Boring,” because of its languid pace and the appearance it might give of little occurring over the course of the story. The film’s action is often defined by diurnal tasks: mending clothes, baking bread, repairing wagon wheels, collecting fire wood. In fact, it is replete with information and emotion, from the gesture of William denying himself water for the sake of his neighbors or Emily sharing her bread for the same reason. But it’s a film that demands that viewers succumb to its rhythm, which pulls you into the reality of these people’s existence where days are spent in near silence, reserving energy as they walk for miles. The film’s slow pace gives you a profound sense of the enormous void these people have wandered into and the nightmarishly slow progress they are making. “We made our decision,” Soloman tells Emily. “This will all be a bad dream soon, a story to tell.” As the pioneers move deeper and deeper into the wilderness, you begin to realize — along with them — that there is no turning back, no change of course, only the reality of heading into infinity and hoping for the best or fearing the worst.
And in that regard, Meek’s Cutoff could be the most understated, and historically accurate, horror film in history. It’s both the scariest and most poetic film of the year.