Postcard from Venice: Michelle Williams (and Her Sunbonnet) Takes the Day in Meek's Cutoff
I don't know about you, but even when I haven't been immersed for days in the beauty and sophistication of a city like Venice, I want to head for the hills whenever I see sunbonnets in the opening shots of a movie. For that reason, the early moments of Kelly Reichardt's ultra-quiet period drama Meek's Cutoff had me worried. The picture is set in 1845 along the Oregon Trail -- Reichardt's home territory -- and in its early moments we watch as three women in calico dresses cross a river on foot. One carries a basket on her head; another, a birdcage with a parakeet inside. As the third emerges from the water, we see that she's pregnant. The other members of this little troupe include the women's husbands and the pregnant woman's preteen son, as well as a know-it-all guide who may, they fear, be leading them down the wrong path.
With their three covered wagons and small collection of oxen, horses and mules, the group trudges through a parched and unforgiving landscape, the creak of their wagon wheels the only music to be heard. Bored yet? Because at the beginning of Meek's Cutoff, like those poor, beleaguered settlers, I couldn't be sure I'd make it all the way through. But 90 minutes in, I was surprised to note how not-bored I was. And by the end, the austerity and directness of Reichardt's vision had won me over, as, damn it, it usually does.
In the context of Reichardt's notoriously low-budget aesthetic, Meek's Cutoff features a veritable all-star cast, including Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan, as well as the movie's true north, Michelle Williams (also the star, and heart, of Reichardt's superb 2008 feature Wendy and Lucy.) Greenwood, hidden beneath a rangy thicket of facial hair and wearing a fringed and authentically dirty buckskin jacket, channels his inner Jeff Bridges to play Stephen Meek, the pioneers' guide, a guy who appears to know everything about the uncharted territory he's leading these sturdy but not immortal people into. (He reels off facts about the various tribes of Native Americans the group might run afoul of, in detail you'd be hard-pressed to find via Google.) Williams is Mrs. Tetherow -- she has a first name, Emily, but it's rarely used -- the settler wife who deeply mistrusts Meek. When she glowers at him from beneath that sunbonnet, hoo boy, she means business.
The subject matter, and the fact that this is a period film, may seem like a departure for Reichardt. But as in her previous pictures (including the 2006 Old Joy), Reichardt is wholly alive to the American landscape around her, recording with rough, unsentimental affection every crack and crevice, every scrubby, water-starved bit of brush. Meek's Cutoff really is a western, only with settlers instead of cowboys. And there is, incidentally, an Indian (played by Rod Rondeaux), a somber being who appears midway through the picture to stir things up, at least as much as anything ever gets stirred up in a Reichardt picture. Reichardt tends to take her time telling a story, and Meek's Cutoff could be a little more compact. Still, she's surprisingly masterful at building slow-burning intrigue, one long take after another. And by the end, the aura of mystery hanging over the picture has only intensified -- Reichardt ends the movie exactly where it needs to end, just at the point where we realize we really care about what happens to these people.
And while the reports from Venice these past few days have featured plenty of cooing over Natalie Portman's performance in Black Swan -- a handful of UK critics plus a smaller handful of American critics have deemed it "Oscar-worthy," thus it must be so! -- Williams, in this determinedly un-diva-like role, is the one for me. When she goes out of her way (and disobeys Meek's crotchety advice) to offer help to that aforementioned Indian, it may seem like an act of kindness. These are Bible-reading, God-fearing people, after all. But when fellow pioneer wife Kazan reminds her of the danger she faces in approaching this savage, she spells out her motivation clearly: "I don't like him any more than you do, but I want him to owe me something." Williams underplays everything here: She's not your stock flinty pioneer wife, with a nice, straight line for a mouth -- all of her resolve, all of her common sense, comes from within, belying the sweet softness of her features. Meek's Cutoff is Reichardt's version of how the west was won, and with Williams' help, she makes a hell of a case for the idea that it wasn't just cowboy hats that built this country, but sunbonnets too.