If you looked at my instant watching activity for the last few days, you would see that I’ve watched several episodes of the BBC show Merlin. Why would I endure this Smallville-ization of the Arthurian legend? Is it possible to be a masochistic Anglophile? Thankfully, I’m not going to answer those questions here. Instead I’m going to talk about something else I watched recently that makes me seem cooler – the haunting Kelly Reichardt movie Meek’s Cutoff.
Although it features effective, restrained performances from stars Michelle Williams and Paul Dano, the unforgiving landscape should get top billing in this minimalist tale about 19th century settlers who make the regrettable decision to leave the Oregon Trail. Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond understand that frightened people clomping through the desert aren’t going to bust out many soliloquies, resulting in a relatively quiet, realistic study of people looking death in the face. And when the visuals are as arresting as they are here, Williams’ stern, heavily bonneted face and Dano’s bug-eyed expressions are all you need. Paranoia abounds from the first minute, where it becomes clear that the settlers don’t trust their guide, the eccentrically brusque Stephen Meek (played by Sweensryche favorite Bruce Greenwood, who plays against his A Dog Named Christmas type, with mixed results). When a Native American crosses the group’s path and eventually becomes Meek’s unwilling replacement, the gap between cultures is as vast as those stunningly arid landscapes.
Reichardt has a thing for the “getting lost” metaphor – Old Joy, her 2006 film about two men attempting to recapture their lost friendship on a camping trip, dealt with the pair losing their way with a mesmerizing sense of patience. Meek’s Cutoff is filmed in a similar style, lulling you with extended shots of the settlers fording rivers and chasing handkerchiefs in the wind. But whereas Old Joy ended with the clear sense that the characters had drifted apart, Meek’s closing shot is harrowingly open-ended. You get the idea that, with paranoia and mistrust worming their way into the settlers’ brains, something bad is on the horizon. Call it American History 101.