Kelly Reichardt's film Meek's Cutoff offers a predominantly female slant on the western, maintaining close proximity to the genre while contravening each of its rules. We see weapons but no shoot-outs. Horses and wagons never get much above 2mph. There are stand-offs between two people, but there isn't even a town that's not big enough for the both of them, as the picture is set entirely on or near the Oregon Trail in 1845. Whenever there is a point-of-view shot, it's usually from the perspective of Emily (Michelle Williams), the most tenacious of the three women making the journey west with their husbands. As the wives fan out across the flat, cracked land, in their rigid bonnets and coloured dresses (one pea-green, one mustard, one pink), they resemble tiny figurines on a vast, unappetising cake.
We are given Emily's ears as well as her eyes: when she observes the men in the group talking in the distance, we hear the same unintelligible murmurs as reach her. It is she who voices directly the only criticism of the party's fallible guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), a braggart with a tumbleweed beard. Meek maintains they are not lost ("We're just finding our way") but the evidence suggests otherwise. Eerie backwards sound effects in Jeff Grace's score could be mocking the party's progress. The music doesn't tell us how to feel, but neither does it promise cancan dancers around the next bend.
It is Emily also who intervenes following the capture of a Cayuse Native American (Rod Rondeaux). Meek is itching to kill the prisoner but Emily, happy to drop a racist epithet into casual conversation, steps in. It would be easy to eroticise the connection between her and this captive, referred to only as "the Indian", especially in the light of their two, potentially sensuous moments of direct contact. It is the sight of the man's feet which alerts her to his presence while, head bowed, she gathers wood; later she requests his torn moccasin so that she might repair the stitching. Buñuel, that old foot fetishist, would have approved.
But the film reaches for something less definable than attraction. "The Indian" isn't exactly a symbol of hope; the screenwriter Jon Raymond, who scripted Reichardt's previous two films (Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy), is careful not to make him a symbol of anything. The director, for her part, complicates matters by cutting to his smirking face when the pioneers are at their lowest ebb. His unsubtitled dialogue leaves ambiguous the question of his motives. This might be perverse from a different film-maker, but the withholding of emphasis is one of Reichardt's most valuable USPs.
Another is her attention to the detail of drudgery. As the days fall away and there is no sign of water, the group starts shedding its belongings to make the wagons lighter. (It's a good visual metaphor for this fat-free film.) With the sun streaming through the canvas, the wagons look like emaciated torsos, the ribcage visible under the skin. Water, so voluminous in the opening section on the banks of a sparkling river, is measured out in cautious cupfuls. The sight of a barrel sloshing its contents on to the earth becomes incalculably upsetting.
Reichardt ends that early river sequence with a slow-dissolve to a shot of the desert, giving the illusion that the water is soaking into the dry land and disappearing forever. There Will Be Blood also used dissolves to similar effect, and Meek's Cutoff feels, in its analysis of the complex relationship between Americans and the land beneath their feet, like a modestly scaled companion piece to Paul Thomas Anderson's movie. (To get nerdy for a moment, Reichardt's film is shot unusually in the 4:3 aspect ratio, which creates a square rather than rectangular frame and makes the landscape seem boxed in.)
It is in the exchange of point-of-view shots between Emily and the Indian, with the camera as intermediary, that restorative drops of optimism fall on a film otherwise parched of the stuff. Hope in Meek's Cutoff is hard to come by. The clues suggest it lies not in the material or territorial wealth sought by the pioneers, but in whatever happens when these two strangers start to trust one another. l
Meek's Cutoff (PG)
dir: Kelly Reichardt
Ryan Gilbey blogs on film every Tuesday at: newstatesman.com/blogs/cultural-capital