“Is he ignorant, or is he just plain evil?” Michelle Williams’ pioneer asks of hapless guide Stephen Meek as their wagon train of three loosely tied families winds up lost in the wasteland with depleting resources and a native prisoner in Kelly Reichardt’s MEEK’S CUTOFF. Constantly hidden between his cowboy hat and his macho man beard, the only thing Bruce Greenwood’s Meek does better than self-mythologize is insist he’s right in the face of facts that beg to differ. Soon Will Patton as Williams’ husband assumes de facto leadership, but his pragmatism is just as dangerously heartless as Meek’s stubbornness, and it’s too unwilling to break with tradition to straighten the course, Reichardt brilliantly framing the wagons as ever so slightly listing in their hazy panoramas. It’s up to Williams as the increasingly assertive godmother of liberal internationalism to save their society, and then only if the others haven’t caused enough damage. Reichardt doesn’t pretend to know if charity is enough, but she nails Bush, Obama, and their ideological guardians in this gripping, heartfelt state of the union address.
Despite being a film composed of a handful of characters, three wagons full of props, and an empty setting, Reichardt’s minimalism (at one point the wagons jettison some props, and you can almost see Reichardt winking) is complicated by its Whitmanian multitudes, achieving a multivalence on the level of Kiarostami and Denis. On the surface, MEEK’S CUTOFF is a frustrating picture, not because it’s so withholding but because it’s so involving, opening in an expansive river with cuts and cues emphasizing the vitality and versatility of water and slowly dripping that water away through time, use, and heart-skipping accident. The odyssey is an obvious crisis of leadership with timeless metaphor, but it’s damn consuming in its immediate plot, too, and Williams cranks the suspense further as her silent expressiveness plays battle with her modern instincts.
But like Juliette Binoche and William Shimell walking right into another dimension, Reichardt is an allegorical acrobat, swinging from pioneer plight to any number of coincident topical realities and back in the same breath. Catharsis is mercifully not the goal of this endeavor, though Reichardt spends a fair amount of time exercising some national demons via Meek, and her Oregon misadventure shares a color palette with an Iraqi one. After Williams clucks at a sadistic story he recounts, Bush admits to “playing games with those men’s lives” and pretends to guilt because that’s what sociopaths do. Luckily he’s covered by history’s greatest excuse: “I know I’m a sinner.” Oh, in that case: bygones! Will Patton plays Obama, who has good intentions, but to what end: he doesn’t torture their native prisoner like Meek does, but he doesn’t set him free either; he simply provides for his free exercise of religion and stays the course. It’s the timeless geopolitical story of the powerful versus the powerless, and despite no threat from a weaponless Other and no indication of his tribesmen and all the weapons at their own disposal, the other pioneer women are constantly tittering in fear of the dark-skinned man they can’t understand whose land they invaded, shrieking at every opportunity about the impending apocalypse. In that one subplot lies any number of parables, but it’s not Nostradamus simplicity, interpreted to fit the occasion. Like Kiarostami, it’s everything at once, multiple ideas together fueling Reichardt’s singular quest, as her players, props, and stage recreate a superpower in crisis. Her answer is generosity, or as Michelle Williams presents it here, doing a favor so you are owed one in return, selflessness as selfishness.
Leave it at that and MEEK’S CUTOFF is the film of the moment, a frontier potboiler and a topical illustration with some timeless parallels. Where Reichardt meets Kiarostami is in self-awareness, crafting a clearly allegorical story that is fundamentally about interpretation, plot churned out by characters deciphering symbols thanks to linguistic barrier, spiritual upbringing, and a gender dynamic that leaves our hero out of the pesky business of deciding the fate of their civilization. Semiotics brings the train to a half-dead tree, and this comically incomprehensible sign naturally takes up everyone’s focus. Only Williams sees the sign that might save them, not some inanimate expression of an ecosystem’s endurance but the behavior of a man she was kind to. Leave it to a sustainability crisis to reveal what we really lack is thoughtful, humane leadership.
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Brandon Nowalk writes about film and television for the Maroon Weekly in College Station, TX and at his blog But What She Said and recently joined Twitter @bnowalk. His favorite films beyond the usual suspects include Henry King’s The Gunfighter, Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, Orson Welles’ The Trial, Jan Nemec’s Diamonds of the Night, and David Lynch’s Inland Empire.