Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff is not a film that is interested in burdening us with a lot of exposition. The title card gives us the time and place: "Oregon, 1845." The opening sequence is free of dialogue and composed almost entirely of long, languid takes--a group of settlers, executing a river crossing. The action is done plainly, without flourish. It is a good ten minutes before we get a good enough look at Michelle Williams, the star of the picture, to recognize her. There are no proper introductions, because we are joining a story in progress.
Slowly, we begin to piece together who is who, and what is happening. The group consists of three couples, one of them with a child (and expecting another), and a guide. His name is Meek (Bruce Greenwood), and he is, by all appearances, not very good at his job. The journey should have taken two weeks. So far, it has taken five. No one seems entirely sure what to do; Soloman Tetherow (Will Patton) is the only one of the husbands with much of a backbone, and even he isn't willing to challenge Mr. Meek. But in her own quiet way, his wife Emily (Williams) is, and will.
This is a dramatic film, and exciting things happen, but Reichardt (whose previous credits include Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, also with Williams) isn't interested in amping things up for effect--her technique is simple and straightforward, often deceptively so. There is, to be certain, a story told, but the film also functions as an anthropological observation of the rituals and routines in their daily existence: grinding coffee, cleaning dishes, repairing wagon wheels. She plays many of the scenes in long, loose, medium-wide shots without much coverage, and she doesn't cheat with cutaways; in one scene, Williams fires a pair of warning shots, and we see the entire, belabored process of reloading the weapon between them.
But that is not to say that there is no style here--in fact, the film's simplicity often diverts us from noticing her effects. The camerawork isn't showy, but if you disengage to really look at it, it is astonishingly effective (look at the shifting compositions and powerful arrangements of figures in the scene where the men return with the Indian). The everything-left-in scene construction can lull us into a fake-out (as in the agonizing sequence of taking the wagons down a steep grade). And the starkness of the characterizations allow us to fill in the shadings on our own. There are elements of the relationships (like the subtle difference, particularly by the other, younger men, to Soloman) that aren't major subplots, as they might be in a lesser picture--they're just part of the atmosphere, and affect the directions the story takes in ways that are deeply felt, yet refreshingly unarticulated.
There are no show-offs in the cast; they look like real pioneers, grizzled, weathered, sun-blasted, a little homely (as opposed to, say, the perfect teeth and sculpted eyebrows of Cowboys & Aliens's Olivia Wilde), and all perform admirably. Greenwood is tremendous (and nearly unrecognizable) in a role entirely unlike anything he's done before; Patton, on the other hand, is playing exactly the kind of quiet, no-nonsense type that he specializes in, but is no less impressive. Paul Dano is excellent as well; I have no idea why he's so good in period films (like this and There Will Be Blood) and so insufferable in modern stories (like Gigantic and The Good Heart), but it just appears to be one of those little incontrovertible facts of the cinema, so there you have it.
There is something inexplicably right about the way that Williams carries all of Emily's fear and distrust in her features, the way we see that all of her troubles have settled on her face. As in all of her work, you just believe her, and she and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond don't get all revisionist in their history by making Emily into some sort of take-charge ass-kicker (contrary to the cover art); they do something more interesting, by keeping the character squarely within the confines of the era's gender roles, and then smuggling in her stubbornness and dissatisfaction within that role. Those moments are sprinkled throughout the film; watch closely, the way she chooses when to look at Mr. Meek (and when not to look at him) as she knits with one of the other wives.
The music by Jeff Grace is used sparsely, and is thus infinitely more forceful (I noticed three cues, though there may have been more, which is also a testament to his work). At first glance, the (rather ballsy) ambiguity of the ending gives one pause, but on reflection, it's exactly right--particularly when framed by Meek's last line, a perfectly-worded encapsulation of prophecy and destiny, manifest and otherwise. More conventional audiences will loathe the uncertainty and obscurity of its closing moments, but on the other hand, most of them will be long gone by the time the picture gets there anyway.
Oscilloscope's Blu-ray presents Meek's Cutoff in its original 1.33:1 format (yes, you read that right), which caused some confusion during its theatrical release. The compactness of the frame helps to increase the claustrophobia of the situation, but it does not diminish the beauty of the picturesque photography, beautifully rendered with a top-notch MPEG-4 AVC transfer. It is a lush, gorgeous image; the color palate isn't always bright (there is a lot of dark green and brown) but it is vivid, while the images of sun-soaked dusks and the wagon train moving across a distant, setting sun are worth framing. Black levels are deep and inky as well, a not-inconsiderable factor for a film that relies so much (in appearance, anyway) on faint, natural light--check out the rich blacks of the campfire scenes, or a lantern-lit conversation between Williams and Patton about thirteen minutes in. Hats off to the folks at Oscilloscope; this is one great-looking disc.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 presentation is nearly as impressive, utilizing the outdoor settings to create an active and immersive soundscape. The full and dominant sound design--clomping horses, turning wagon wheels, and the like--is vividly rendered, while flowing water, chirping birds, calling crows, crackling fires, and other environmental effects maintain a constant presence in the surrounds. Dialogue isn't always entirely audible, though that seems purposeful; the talk is often used as background rather than primary focus. Dialogue reproduction is only really problematic at one point, during a wide shot of the men deciding what to do as the women look on. Presumably, making them so hard to hear is an effect present in the original mix, but it is carried on too long; in frustration, we end up cranking the volume to unsafe levels. That's a minor, momentary complaint; overall, the track is outstanding.
A PCM Stereo 2.0 mix is also included, as are English SDH subtitles.
Not much in the way of bonus features, unfortunately. "The Making of Meek's Cutoff" (9:37) is a featurette refreshingly free of the EPK trappings; there is no narration, sound bites, or music, just assembled shots from the shoot, often accompanied only by the sound of the howling wind. It's a perfect fit with the style of the film, and well worth checking out, but aside from that, all we get is an original Theatrical Trailer (2:26).
In the weeks following its release last spring, Meek's Cutoff became a bit of a flashpoint for the ongoing cultural argument about the battle between empty entertainment and intellectual exercises when New York Times writer Dan Kois made it the centerpiece of an essay on "Eating Your Cultural Vegetables." With that kind of lead-up, there was a bit of this reviewer who was expecting the experience of watching the film to be something like consuming a plate of broccoli--good for you, but not necessarily enjoyable. To my surprise, I found it neither a chore to get through nor, as the perpetually wrong-headed David Denby insisted, "pleasureless." It is a quiet, contemplative picture, yes, and it requires both an intense focus on the action onscreen and a kind of Zen passivity that occasionally spins viewers off into their own thoughts and tangents, and then brings them back. It is not an easy movie, no. But it is not a difficult one either.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.