MINNEAPOLIS — We’re accustomed to stories about the settling of the American West being told in a certain way. There will be resolute men sitting on horses, holding ropes and guns, photographed in monumental closeups. There will be galloping music and powerful adversaries to be overcome. The ingredients are as traditional as chuckwagon stew.
In “Meek’s Cutoff,” Oregon filmmaker Kelly Reichardt and her stars Michelle Williams, Paul Dano and Bruce Greenwood put the torch to our preconceptions of what Westerns can — and should — be.
Its story of an ill-fated, incompetently led wagon train is a revisionist look at our national Genesis myths, with sociopolitical themes that resonate 150 years after the fact.
Reichardt is a filmmaker with just four features on her resume. In 1988, she launched her directing career with the quirky sort-of crime story “River of Grass,” whose lovers on the run aren’t sure they’ve actually committed a crime, and don’t manage to run anywhere.
After a break spent teaching and making short films, Reichardt became an indie sensation with 2006’s “Old Joy,” a terse, emotionally astute tale of two onetime friends on a hiking trip that was a kind of anti-road trip/buddy movie. Her mainstream breakthrough came with 2008’s “Wendy and Lucy.” Michelle Williams delivered a triumphant performance as a jobless girl driving to Alaska (“I hear they need people there”), who becomes stranded in a small town when her car breaks down and her dog runs away. The New York Times called her “an indispensable American filmmaker” for her indelible portraits of disconnected, disaffected souls.
In her latest film, Reichardt tells a story of frontier settlers in a way that it has never been told before. “Meek’s Cutoff,” based on the true story of an 1845 wagon train that wandered the desolate Oregon High Desert, is a minimalist and de-dramatized pioneer saga. The men (including Greenwood and Dano) are not virile and tough, but useless braggarts or ineffectual sheep. The women (principally Williams, Shirley Henderson and Zoe Kazan) are not helpless. The only native the party encounters (Rod Rondeaux) is neither savage nor noble, and his dialogue, which is not subtitled, is incomprehensible to the settlers.
Using primarily long-take, medium shots from a stationary camera, Reichardt creates a disquieting atmosphere of stasis. The journey west is a matter of monotonous daily rituals, a tedium underscored by the ceaseless squeaking of a wagon wheel. Eerie anxiety and distrust — among the trekkers themselves, and the Indian they hold captive — pervade every scene.
“I made it a rule to never call it a Western,” Reichardt said in an interview at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. “I kept saying things like ‘desert poem.’ I was doing everything to avoid the term Western just to get around expectations of how that would be shot.”
She shunned high-tech equipment in favor of boom mikes and cameras on dolly tracks to avoid a slick 21st-century texture. The production designer hand-sewed all the clothing and made the shoes in the style of the era to create a more realistic period feeling. The film frame itself is archaic, a square format favored by old-school sagebrush directors Anthony Mann and William Wellman, rather than the panoramas that became fashionable afterward. “My rule was, no vistas,” she said.
Reichardt sent her cast to a weeklong pioneer camp where they learned to make a fire without matches, cook in the open air and pitch a tent. They also had to work with oxen, which are not easy animals to direct. Henderson, a petite English actress best known for light comedy, proved the most capable ox herder of all.
With its absence of “John Wayne” moments, the film will provoke debate — which is fine with Reichardt.
“To me, an ideal situation would be that on the way home from the movie you have an argument with the person who sat next to you over what it was all about.”
Reichardt said she began preparing the film during the Bush years, when its “ideas of fallible leadership, going to a land that wasn’t yours, assuming it was yours, needing information from a native person that’s culturally different, whom you mistrust and whom you are completely dependent on, felt timely and relevant.” When she began editing it during the Obama administration, “the feedback I got was, ‘I get it, this is all about race.’ I was like, ‘Whoa.’ It’s really easy to project onto it. Even over the long period of making and cutting a film you see it different ways, day to day. It’s constantly revealing itself as this thing that has a life of its own.”