Ever the zeitgeist-engagers, director Reichardt and her frequent collaborator, screenwriter Jon Raymond, have made movies about the culture wars (2006’s Old Joy) and the new recession (2008’s Wendy and Lucy). So it’s no surprise that their latest, Meek’s Cutoff, tackles so many contemporary topics—fear of the Other, disillusionment with cowboy leadership, the allure of the mob—even though it’s set so far in the past.
Cutoff plays out in Oregon, 1845; a three-family group of deracinated, industrious would-be settlers (with overtaxed oxen and melancholic mules) has gone off The Trail, attempting to take a shortcut suggested by their hired guide, the hirsute Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), but now hopelessly lost—and dangerously low on water. Despite having wandered off trail, the movie still often recalls the Oregon Trail video game. Welcome to scenes from the hardscrabble frontier: fording a river in silence, slow wanderings through desert-like landscapes (also in silence) that start to evoke Gerry. Indeed, the assistant camera operator on that Gus van Sant movie, Chris Blauvelt, serves as cinematographer here, crafting painterly fullscreen images that conjure up a swath of art history: daytime looks like the world of Andrew Wyeth, with its angular compositions and blond grasses. Nighttime evokes Rembrandt, with its naturalistic, starkly sourced light.
The ragged, thrown-together Western costuming brings to mind the haggard look of Dust Bowl photo-subjects, which then of course brings to mind a more recent economic crisis, which brings us back to the present. When this gang of homesteaders-to-be (including Michelle Williams and a largely decorative Paul-and-Zoe) makes a stray Redskin (Rod Rondeaux) their prisoner, he exacerbates the fissures in their tenuous relationships. The Catalytic Injun, of course, could just as easily be a Muslim, an undocumented immigrant, a black president, and still inspire this group of archetypal Americans to take out their frustrations, misfortunes and impoverishment on the most vulnerable among them, or to turn white man against white man—er, white woman, as Williams The Righteous goes all Annie Oakley on her wagon train. Ultimately, though, Meek’s Cutoff seems as much about that cutoff as that Cayuse, a shortcut that results in an occasionally fatal wandering almost worthy of Moses. The movie’s complicated ending suggests there are no such shortcuts—no salvation just around the corner, no easy answers at all, particularly not those offered by iconic American white men. You follow a man like Meek, a man who embodies the reactionary, only at your peril. Better to take your chances with The Stranger and see where it gets you.