REVIEW: Michelle Williams Shines in Ambitious, Gorgeous Meek's Cutoff

Movieline Score: 9

Truly confident movies are rarely flashy ones, which is why filmmakers who really know what they're doing -- whether they're working in the mainstream or in Hollywood -- don't always get their due. Kelly Reichardt's pioneer drama Meek's Cutoff is such a quiet, unassuming picture that it isn't immediately obvious how surefooted it is. For one thing, it's set along the Oregon Trail in 1845, and it features actresses who are normally rather glamorous-looking (most notably Michelle Williams) decked out in calico and sunbonnets: If that doesn't sound like a reason to head for the hills, I don't know what is.

But Meek's Cutoff is an ambitious feat of visual storytelling that's alive to both its landscape and the actors who people it. This is a big movie masquerading as a small one, fully awake in even its quietest, slowest moments. Its grandeur is measured out in spoonfuls.

The picture is a distillation of a true story: In 1845, a group of settlers forging their way along the Oregon Trail decided to follow a guide, Stephen Meek, along an alternate route; the hardships they endured led them to question his knowledge and judgment. Meek's Cutoff opens at a point in that story where things are just starting to go wrong: We see a group of women, three altogether, fording a river with baskets perched on their heads -- one is ferrying a bird cage with a parakeet inside. Another, we see as she emerges from the water, is pregnant. Their husbands are nearby, tending to the covered wagons and to the animals drawing them. That river, it turns out, is the last water the group will see for a while. And Meek, the trapper and allegedly experienced guide in whom they've placed their trust (he's played by Bruce Greenwood, muttering like Jeff Bridges and lurking behind a shag-rug of mountain-man facial hair) has no idea where he's leading them.

Then again, pioneers never know what lies ahead, and Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond use that giant, roughhewn question mark to their advantage. They set nothing out in advance; the story lies, just as it does for the characters, in the stretch of land before us. The three couples and their families who populate Meek's Cutoff -- they're representative of the hundreds of settlers who followed Meek in real life -- aren't just stand-ins for that musty old construct known as the pioneer spirit. Even with their moderately formal manner of speaking and dusty, old-fashioned clothes, they're easily recognizable as people we might know even in the modern day. Thomas and Millie Gately (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan) are the youngest of the adults, perhaps newlyweds -- Thomas is soft-spoken and sensible, and Millie tends to be high strung and, even for a settler cutting through godforsaken territory, overanxious. William and Glory White (Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson) already have one preteen son and another child on the way. William says almost nothing (his eyes have the gaunt, hollowed-out, specter-like quality you sometimes see in old Daguerreotypes); Glory, fluttery and quail-like, seems fragile at first, but we get the sense she spends most of her energy husbanding her family's meager reserves.

Of the three couples, Emily and Solomon Tetherow -- played by Michelle Williams and Will Patton -- have what we might consider the most modern partnership, though I think the point is that relationships like these have always existed. Emily, who may be both the most cautious and the sturdiest member of this little group, is younger than her stolid, eminently reasonable husband. They spend time at night going over the day's events, and Solomon is forthright about sharing his concerns with her. The other women look to Emily eagerly for information, and together, the three of them piece together a semi-accurate picture of their dire situation: They may be on the outside of the menfolk's news loop, but they tap it as best they can and then pool the information.

Meek's Cutoff is a western, but one with settlers rather than cowboys. It also suggests, without twisting itself into obvious revisionist constraints, the scope of the role that women played in winning the west. Reichardt doesn't belabor the point, because she doesn't have to. We see Emily rising before the sun does, emerging alone from the tent she shares with Solomon to begin the day's chores in the dark. And when a lone native American, who's more likely to be foe than friend (he's played by Rod Rondeaux), enters the settlers' cautious circle, Emily eyes him more warily than anyone else does. But she also works hardest to win him over, intuitively sensing how necessary that is. The settlers keep the man captive, tying him up by night and letting him loose by day in the hope that he'll lead him to water. The womenfolk keep their distance, for obvious reasons. But it's Emily who ventures close to him, first to offer him a drink of the group's precious water and then to sew his torn moccasin (which, we learn, stinks to high heaven). As Kazan's Millie looks on, terrified and disapproving, Emily explains her motives as ruthlessly as any cutthroat modern-day executive might: "I don't like it any more than you do. But I want him to owe me something."

That line is key to the heart of Meek's Cutoff. These god-fearing, earnest people aren't saps, and Reichardt knows she can always turn to Williams' face to get that idea across. Williams also appeared in Reichardt's last movie, the superb and quietly shattering 2008 Wendy and Lucy, which, perhaps more than any contemporary picture I can think of, drives home the effect that a faltering economy can have on someone who's way at the bottom of the ladder to begin with. (It doesn't matter that Wendy and Lucy was made before the economy went bust; it's the story of what can happen all too easily, at any time, to plenty of people in America.)

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