Director Kelly Reichardt definitely has a thing for doomed Oregon road trips. As in Reichardt’s “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy,” environment is a character in her minimal feminist western “Meek’s Cutoff,” and arguably the most developed. This time it’s the high desert of the Oregon Trail in 1845, where a three-family wagon train wanders in search of a shortcut across the Cascades, getting thirsty, wary, exhausted and lost.
Their hired guide, a fluffy-bearded braggart by the name of Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), has been proving unreliable. “Is he ignorant, or just plain evil?” asks Emily (Michelle Williams), the movie’s second most developed character. Later she and her fellow travelers capture an inscrutable Cayuse tribesman (Rod Rondeaux), who might prove more reliable and less ignorant, guidance-wise, unless of course he’s evil himself — or understandably bitter after enduring a cruel captivity. It is Emily who offers this man some kindness, but as she also says, “I want him to owe me something.” More wandering follows. They find gold, but water is what they need.
This is Reichardt and screenwriter Jon Raymond’s very loose interpretation of a true story, austerely reconfigured as a comment on the mundanity of Manifest Destiny, and the wasteful drudgery of dubious leadership. It’s about wanting too-credulous followers to wise up, and needing a strong-willed woman to make that happen.
Having repurposed her muse from “Wendy and Lucy,” Reichardt aspires again to a sort of anti-glamour, but it’s still tricky business with the ever-radiant Williams, here having swapped out formless hoodie for prairie bonnet. Meanwhile Greenwood, under all that facial fur, is recognizable only by his own peculiar stiltedness. What really matters is that Williams gets top billing in spite of saying (much) less than the male character whose name is in the title. Saying less seems important, generally; we understand that Meek talks too much, whereas Emily has a more familiar and wiser western-hero laconism. She sets the movie’s tone.
As for its pace, that consists of moving on and on through the arid landscape. It’s more a matter of ponderousness than ponderosa. Long passages seem only to exist as meditations on scrub brush and wagon-wheel squeak, with Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt enclosing everything in a foreboding mood and a boxy aspect ratio. It’s not really widescreen we want so much as some variation in focal depth. Claustrophobia may be the intention, but it’s hard to feel trapped, exactly, in a movie that’s so open-ended, with its gaze so often fixed on the middle distance.
Finding ourselves with some time to think, we might ruminate on the aesthetic kinship between Reichardt and Sofia Coppola, whose last film “Somewhere” strove similarly for a quiet and affectless style, also by deliberately sucking the air out of an expectedly blustery milieu (in that case, the satirical Hollywood snapshot). Both directors have been accused of being boring, but critics seem kinder to Reichardt, perhaps so as to be seen authenticating her progressive feminist credentials.
Certainly “Meek’s Cutoff” doesn’t suffer from the self-debasement of overeagerness to please. It is hardly docile. But now, with her genre revisionism not so much enjoyable as academically understandable, Reichardt comes off sometimes like a schoolmarm — albeit one whose approval we seek. At least some of what makes “Meek’s Cutoff” so absorbing is the uneasy feeling that she might be in a rut, not least because we’ve enabled her. It’s not for nothing that an instinct wells up to decry this film as fashionably vacant, pretty much Gus Van Sant’s “Gerry” but with period trappings and plug-in politics. As if to underline its pre-approved indie slightness, the supporting cast includes Shirley Henderson and Paul Dano, whose bodies and performances seem routinely emaciated of late, and who register shrilly here.
Still, there is a potent unity of resourcefulness in “Meek’s Cutoff,” a decidedly thrifty film that takes pains to show its protagonist knitting, fetching firewood, not quite hearing men’s administrative blather, and stoically lightening her wagonload by tossing nonessentials out the back. If the film’s elliptical narrative really is a cover for not knowing what to do with itself, it does at least press on, exuding the true frontier spirit of self-determination. Wherever Reichardt goes from here (probably somewhere else in Oregon), we know she’ll be able to handle herself.