“Pioneers! O Pioneers!/For we cannot tarry here, /We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger, /We, the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend, Pioneers!”
So wrote Walt Whitman in 1865, in a poem that may well have served as inspiration for Meek’s Cutoff, the new film by director Kelly Reichardt ( Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy). Loosely based on a true story (the screenplay was written by Jon Raymond, who also wrote Wendy and Lucy), the movie follows three families and their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), as they make the arduous trek west across the Oregon desert in 1845 toward the rumored land of riches. Meek, a stalwart man, repeatedly tell the group he knows exactly where he’s going, but their journey has been so long that no one really believes him any more. But having gone too far to turn back, the families have no choice. They must continue to follow him.
Shot by cinematographer Chris Blauvelt in the Academy ratio of 1:33 (a square frame instead of a rectangle, giving the movie the feel of an old, found document), Meek’s Cutoff is often gorgeous to look at, the barren landscapes teeming with potential death and sudden danger, the night scenes lit by campfire and metal lanterns. The movie has been described as a feminist work because the three female leads — Emily (Michelle Williams), Millie (Zoe Kazan) and Glory (Shirley Henderson) — are treated by their husbands with kindness and love but are not made privy to the decisions affecting the group’s journey. (In several scenes, the camera stands with the women as the men talk at a distance, so we can only make out part of what they are saying.)
Meek’s Cutoff is an experiential film: Reichardt wants to show you how these people dealt with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, such as a river too deep to cross or a broken axle that renders a wagon useless. The only plot in the film is an encounter with a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) whom the group captures and takes hostage. Some of the travelers want to kill him immediately, fearful his tribe will come looking for him. Others, such as Emily, believe the captive knows more than the pompous Meek about the terrain and that he may be their only salvation. To call Meek’s Cutoff slow doesn’t begin to describe its pace. There are stretches that are, frankly, boring. But the vivid details and intimacy you develop with these travelers sticks with you, leaving you in awe of the insane feats people had to accomplish in order for us to enjoy the world we know today.
Cast: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Neal Huff, Jimmy White, Rod Rondeaux.
Director: Kelly Reichardt.
Screenwriter: Jon Raymond.
Producers: Neil Kopp, Anish Savjani, Elizabeth Cuthrell.
An Oscilloscope Films release. Running time: 101 minutes. Mild violence. Opens Friday May 26 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.