Identifying filmmaker Kelly Reichardt as a minimalist is like calling the Pacific a body of water. Her spare, barely-there films have steadily built a following in recent years, culminating in critical plaudits for Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy. Her latest film is the first to boast a cast of well-known actors, led by Michelle Williams (who starred in Wendy and Lucy), Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, and Shirley Henderson, but there has been no softening of Reichardt’s approach. Meek’s Cutoff proceeds at a deliberately slow pace, which could send some viewers weaned on comic-book movies running up the aisles screaming.
Even I had a difficult time immersing myself in the picture; I may have been distracted on the night I saw it, and this is a film that demands complete concentration. But after a point I had to marvel at what Reichardt had achieved: a vivid and immediate portrait of—
—three pioneer families making their way across a harsh expanse of Oregon territory in 1845. When water becomes scarce and the women silently walk behind their wagons, to lighten the load for their oxen, while the menfolk make decisions about which route to follow, you sense that this is really the way it was.
Indeed, reading background stories about the production is as fascinating as the film itself. The actors participated in a week-long “pioneer camp” to transform themselves from 21st century performers into 19th century settlers of the uncharted West.
In the film’s press notes, production designer David Doernberg says, “At Pioneer Camp all the actors learned to lead oxen. The animal wranglers, a group of genuine badass cowboys, taught them the proper terminology: ‘Haw’ (turn left), ‘Gee’ (turn right) as they prodded them with sticks with the wagons bobbing along behind. They did all of this wearing their long dresses and wool pants in heat that was over one hundred degrees… We set up a collection of tools, blankets, pots, and pans, sacks of beans and all of the things the emigrants might need. Each couple ‘shopped’ in our warehouse and learned how to pack their wagon. Kelly wanted each couple to have a distinct feel to their wagon and campsite.”
The performances reflect the film’s integrity; the actors work as an ensemble and there are no Hollywood moments. I don’t think any movie has ever made an audience feel so connected to everyday life, and the stark realities of survival, on the trail before.
That said, Meek’s Cutoff may not qualify as great drama, at least not in a conventional sense. Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond’s approach to storytelling is elliptical, to put it mildly. But even if the film is difficult to warm to, or fully embrace, when it’s over you feel as if you’ve had a deep and resonant experience. How many conventional movies can say the same?