Kelly Reichardt’s new film Meek’s Cutoff stands in direct opposition to almost every trend and tendency in American film. It is slow where most other films are fast, emotionally contained where other films are effusive and showy, deliberately serious where other films are layered with irony. It is resolutely opposed to manufactured drama, instead taking great care to find the gravity that exists in silence, the conflict that emerges over time. The characters in the film are under great duress, but that doesn’t necessitate a flight from the the taciturn endurance that defines their collective personality. Reichardt has made a film that is uncommonly comfortable being still, spare and ambiguous. It has a progression, it has turning points, it even has identifiable turning points–all the stuff of basic dramaturgy. But it approaches those things with the imprecise timing of life. Things happen at a pace set outside of the anxious dictates of film.
In large part, this restrained approach works because it’s a perfect match with the story being told. Set in 1845, three couples are traveling across the Oregon High Desert, led by a ragged guide whose jabbering pride masks a potentially tragic lack of familiarity with the route he chooses. These aspirational westward journeys were tough hoeing, and the pace of Reichardt’s film mirrors that of those trekking across unaccommodating terrain. Under the best of circumstances, days of progress could feel like no progress at all. The weariness of the travelers radiates through the film, especially as their desperation mounts. The uncertainty of their guide has put them on a path with no water in sight and no tools to offer a clear promise of relief over the next crest. As the barrel grows emptier, hope dries out as well. The movie’s very nature makes that worry palpable.
Important as all this is to the artistry of the piece, dwelling on it gives the impression–as many reviews and features already have–that the film is some sort of an endurance test. Certainly, there was visible restlessness among some of the few other moviegoers with whom I shared a theater. But, in the end, I don’t really think it is. Reichardt introduces tension into the story when the travelers capture a Native American who they hope will lead them to an oasis in the desert despite their inability to communicate with him. The relationships at cross-purposes are laid out cleanly and smartly, and the acting is all first-rate. It’s not a somnolent work like Reichardt’s Old Joy; it simply offers stimulation that’s intellectual rather than visceral.
Maybe the most daring choice in Meek’s Cutoff is the ending that doesn’t offer any sort of closure, indeed almost asserts that closure is elusive, even impossible. It’s all journey, no destination. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not satisfying. Quite the contrary. The film’s rewards are ample for anyone willing to travel at its perfect pace.