Director Reichardt had previously made the fine Old Joy and the excellent Wendy and Lucy, yet I still found myself unprepared for this powerful experience. How can a forty-ish woman, with seemingly nothing to gain but forwarding her own artistry, choose to make what is on the surface an old-fashioned Western? I suppose it harks back to the old studio auteurs, like Ford, who could take any subject and shape it into a personal artistic expression (even if they might never admit to it; Ford, Hawks, Lang, Ray, et al. never admitted to anything more than the desire to entertain). Sure, and Van Gogh’s fields and skies were pretty pictures, weren’t they?
To the film:
In 1845, three families are being led along the Oregon Trail, toward a crossing of the Cascade Mountains, by a mountain man named Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Meek professes to know a shortcut, which appears to get them lost in arid, desertlike country. Meek is a big talker at least, and to some of the party, a blowhard and perhaps worse.
Meek’s main skeptic is Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams), who spends much time quietly taking his measure before confronting him, all the while realizing that women are not generally taken seriously in 1845. Williams has become, with Wendy and Lucy and Blue Valentine, and now Meek’s Cutoff, an astounding actress, one who has no need or use for histrionics, but who can convey emotions with intense subtlety of eyes, face, and voice modulation. She creates a haunting, spectral presence who is truly fearless.
Reichardt’s palette is austere and dry, riven with long shots and long takes, always with the visuals in the ascendant (with Michelle Williams’ face at her disposal, words seem paltry and unnecessary). Her mix of legend and the enormity of landscapes as they seem to swallow her characters whole continuously brought Ford and Antonioni to mind. The film has long stretches in which not much action takes place; indeed one could argue that little action ever happens, and yet, Reichardt’s technique and pacing is so exacting that the sense of weight is palpable.
When the party capture a Native American who may or may not be what he seems, they must make a fateful decision about whom to follow. Reichardt effortlessly builds the tension until Williams takes up the gun and… – [DVD]