(dir. Kelly Reichardt) isn't too interested in telling you what's happened, what's happening, or what's going to happen. We join a group of pilgrims as they are already, under the advice of their guide Meek, too committed to a "shortcut" to the promised land in the west to turn back. Water drops lower in the barrels. Wagon axles break. Tensions rise. They keep walking. Meek keeps boasting. There is no certainty that they are not heading directly towards their ends.
And then halfway through they find, perhaps, a new guide to fresh water, perhaps, who may, perhaps, know more than Mr Meek, on account of being a local. Or he may also, perhaps, be leading them to their doom, on account of being tied up, held at gunpoint, and called a heathen; and also being subject to the continual violent expansion of settlers across the west.
Well, they don't know who to trust, and neither do we. But they've gone too far, and they gotta move in some direction. Call it optimism, exhaustion, instinct, luck, prejudice, foolishness. Faith. Not blind faith but an aware and alive faith with active investment in the absence
of certainty, the ineluctable gap between the knowable and the unknowable, the impossibility of resolution. It is all too clear that it could all be for naught; and at the end waits death, or at least 100 minutes of wasted time.
As pilgrims, they may be quite used to the problem and effort of faith. They pick a man and a direction, and keep walking.
In wide unbroken shots they trudge through the desert and dry hills, skirts fluttering, guiding cattle, looking sad. There is a very strange and unconvincing hollowness to the endless amounts of doing and being that are done and been onscreen. The actors are obviously enduring something unfun, but they all of them except Rod Rondeaux (who creates mystery with ease and precision) and Will Paxton (whose stoic patience and inherent goodness are almost
too much) appear to be playacting.
Michelle Williams as Emily is the main moral and intellectual ground upon which the problem of not-knowing plays out. Her round face, with its perfectly-manicured eyebrows and natural troubled pout, is all wrong for this thin harsh story. She is very carefully dirty. Her wide eyes fix on objects and people without appearing to process thoughts about them. Her best moment (for my money the most exciting and characterful moment in the movie) is simply her shooting and laboriously reloading a rifle -- loading shot, packing wadding, loading gunpowder -- that plays out for a full minute. Williams has obviously practiced and repracticed this action, and the urgency of the moment comes through in the familiarity and smoothness of her motions.
For some reason, walking and gesturing does not appear to be as familiar to these actors as shooting a 150-year-old gun or shaping a new axle out of a tree trunk. Bruce Greenwood as Meek is swamped by a ridiculous beard and fringed jacket and, denied any revealing closeups, appears to have forgotten how to move convincingly in long shot, awkward in his clothes. Costumes are important. One of the great pleasures of Westerns is watching actors use their hats to mess with their sightlines (Brokeback Mountain
is an aria sung in hat-brims) and the three women in Meek's Cutoff
are gifted with deep bonnets that function like horse blinkers, literally tunnelling their vision forwards; but nobody seems to realise how crucial this is thematically or practically.
With her aversion to closeups and her use of the 4:3 ratio Reichardt works almost as hard as her actors to keep us at a distance. The naturalism of Blauvelt's photography and the length of the shots encourage observation, looking at
. She makes the labour visible, and withholds the emotion.
This cripples these actors, who are required to domesticate and naturalise the stark difference of time and place through repetitive doing; to give the film's mysteries a purpose, to live us into the struggle and effort of faith. And sure, you can hinge a movie's structure on the question of faith, but you gotta do the rest yourself. Faith will give you a direction but it will not do the walking for you. And it is in the doing -- which is the entirety of the action onscreen: walking, kneading bread dough, watching, walking, patting donkeys, running, gathering wood, knitting, walking -- where Meek's Cutoff
cannot connect, cannot turn concrete action into the stuff that makes the faith meaningful.