Kelly Reichardt’s (Wendy & Lucy) new film is not your typical Western. In fact, the only way you can really consider it a Western is the time-period in which it is set, as there aren’t many of the expected genre tropes. Three families and their blow-hard guide toil across an arid Oregon landscape, obviously lost and with their water running low. The trip, and the film, is slow going with little hope of a successful conclusion.
Reichardt and her star Michelle Williams obviously got along well on Wendy & Lucy as they have teamed again, but this time Williams is surrounded by something of an indie-film all-star cast. Her much older husband is played with gruff sincerity by Will Patton (also, briefly, Wendy & Lucy), Shirley Henderson a fellow wife, Paul Dano the husband in the youngest couple and an unrecognisable Bruce Greenwood as their blustering and blowhard guide, Stephen Meek. Williams has come a long way since Dawson’s Creek, constantly doing challenging work and she is the quiet but strong centre of the film. She, more than almost any other member of the train, guides them and focuses them. Greenwood looks to be having the most fun, relishing his disappearance under a huge mane of beard and hair. His Stephen Meek is a teller of tall-tales and carries the air of a bronco rider more than a wise guide.
Reichardt’s modus operandi has not changed from Wendy & Lucy; things are slow going, with a focus on the mundane everyday activities that people do. This only serves to enhance the hardships faced by these foolish frontier people though; fording a river is slow going, possessions having to be carried across on heads; the three wives are up before the sun each day, preparing coffee and breakfast and a busted axle stops the whole wagon train for a day. Meek’s Cutoff is a dry, dustbowl of a film simultaneously in love with and afraid of the landscape.
Some sort of strange, unreliable guidance comes to the travellers (and the film) in the form of a lone captured “Injun”. Meek counsels killing him outright, but the families decide to place their trust momentarily in the mysterious Native American. There is the constant refrain of “one more day. We’ll see how we are in one more day”, but that day never comes. The train reasons the Native American man must know where water is, and he leads them to a possibility of it... and then the film ends. It just ends; no resolution, no nothing. I’m all for open-ended films but to stop the film, so abruptly after all that toil... Perhaps there is some rich, inner meaning beyond the foolish and relentless slog of these pioneer families but, if so, I am afraid it escapes me. Yes, Reichardt highlights the hard, everyday work of pioneer woman and the foolhardy struggles faced by many but I am unenlightened as to what more there could be.