This chilling, beautiful fable about the Oregon Trail might be Toronto's best new film
TORONTO — “Meek’s Cutoff,” which premiered this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, is one of those movies that you’re going to make a decision about within the first minute. You’re either in or you’re out, and you’ll know which. As an opening credit stitched in embroidery tells us — and it really is embroidery, not some digital facsimile — we’re on the Oregon Trail, in 1845. Director Kelly Reichardt’s opening shot lasts at least a minute, and shows us a group of nearly indistinguishable men and women in the middle distance, wearing the shabby clothes of 19th-century emigrants, as they get their cattle and wagons across a chest-deep river.
There isn’t any talking for several more minutes, and when we finally hear a human voice, it belongs to a small boy reading aloud from the Book of Genesis. You could say that’s allegorical — reading the Old Testament while you wander through the desert — but it also isn’t. That’s very likely the only book his family brought along. “Meek’s Cutoff” feels from the beginning like one of those slow-developing, deep-focus American landscape movies, of the kind identified with director Terrence Malick (“Badlands,” “Days of Heaven”). It is, but it also isn’t. In this quiet, beautiful and terrifying fable about a group of lost pioneers, Reichardt combines epic ambition with a focus on intimate, personal detail. (At this writing, the film still has no American distribution deal.)
That embroidery at the beginning is no accident. As those figures we saw fording the river gradually move into the foreground and become characters, Reichardt begins to show us the domestic realities of life on the trail. This is a world where men make the decisions, at least officially. When it’s a question of which direction to travel or what to do with a captured Indian or whether or not to abandon Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), the grizzled and sinister mountain man who seems to have led the group hopelessly astray in the Great Basin, the wives of the three emigrant families are not consulted. But of course they’re the ones who cook and share out the food, care for the sick, mend the clothes and ruthlessly dump treasured items in the arid eastern Oregon desert, as needed.
It’s not like Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond (who also co-wrote her films “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy”) have set out to craft some feminist diatribe about Western history. There isn’t enough talking for that, and anyway Reichardt is always more concerned with getting the details right than with sending a message. Emily Tetherow, the young wife played by Michelle Williams who is more or less our leading character, unself-consciously describes the group of wives as “working like niggers” — which I guess is a political insight of a certain kind — and views the captive Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) coerced into being their guide with as much distaste and mistrust as everyone else does. But Emily’s decision to offer the Cayuse man some ordinary, practical help carries more moral weight in the film than the men’s debates about whether or not to shoot him.
If you’ve never heard of Kelly Reichardt, that’s really not your fault. She’s been making movies since the early ’90s, and getting better at it the whole time, but her minimalist, radically unfashionable style simply isn’t going to be a hot commodity in an era of perpetual distraction. In “Meek’s Cutoff” she displays a whole new level of ambition, making a period piece with an ensemble cast that features Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan and Will Patton alongside Williams, who manages to look luminous while covered in grime and wearing a yellow bonnet.
Beyond that, “Meek’s Cutoff” is a film that works masterfully with space, time and history. You could call it a thriller or horror movie in extreme slow motion, or a parable that’s more about 2010 than 1845. At various moments it recalls Bertolucci’s “The Sheltering Sky,” Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed” and those verses from the Old Testament. No doubt it would bore many people silly, but its mood of desolation, danger and desperate faith affected me more powerfully than anything else I saw amid the onslaught of cinema at Toronto this year. It offered a few moments of intense, quiet contemplation, the perfect way to bid farewell to this congenial city and its amazing film festival.
More Related Stories
- What's behind New York's anti-gay hate crimes?
- Paul McCartney backs Pussy Riot
- Cannes: Ryan Gosling's new movie draws the boo-birds
- Radio host tweets rape joke, blames journalists for reporting on it
- Juror responds to Joe Francis' insults with thoughtful email
- New track from the Lonely Island features Solange Knowles, semicolons
- Amazon introduces fan fiction publishing platform
- Naomi Watts, "Argo," "Wonderstone" among bizarre Teen Choice Awards nominees
- Imprisoned Pussy Riot member declares hunger strike
- The camp-free "Behind the Candelabra"
- Justin Bieber will destroy you if you live-tweet his parties
- Marc Maron on Twitter feud with Michael Ian Black: "We have an understanding"
- "Girls Gone Wild" creator Joe Francis to jury: "You should be euthanized"
- Ai Weiwei releases heavy metal music video
- Actually, Beyoncé is a feminist
- Marc Maron and Michael Ian Black's epic Twitter battle
- Cannes: Directing 101 with James Franco
- Welcome to the jungle: The definitive oral history of '80s metal
- Burt Bacharach opens up on daughter's suicide
- Steven Spielberg to produce "Halo" television series
- Amazon set to launch fine-art gallery
Featured Slide Shows
The week in 10 picsclose X
- 1 of 11
Lisa Montgomery embraces her nephew Thursday after a tornado tore apart her home in Cleburne, Texas. The twister killed six people and destroyed entire swaths of the North Texas town.
Credit: AP/LM Otero
Jack McMahon, the defense attorney for abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, speaks outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia Tuesday. His client was convicted of killing three babies in his clinic, and will serve multiple life sentences.
Credit: AP/Matt Rourke
A photo taken Monday captures Vice President Joe Biden's response to a Milwaukee second-grader's innovative proposal to end America's epidemic of gun violence. This guy!
Credit: AP/Jenny Aicher
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., flanked by a grouper-eyed Michele Bachmann, addresses the IRS' admission that it targeted Tea Party groups in advance of the 2012 election. In an op-ed for CNN Thursday, the Kentucky senator slammed the president for his faux outrage.
Credit: AP/Molly Riley
Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller is sworn in on Capitol Hill Friday. Miller testified before the House Ways and Means Committee on the extra scrutiny the agency gave conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status.
Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite
Attorney General Eric Holder pauses as he testifies on Capitol Hill before the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Holder is under fire, among other things, for the Justice Department's gathering of phone records at the Associated Press.
Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster
O.J. Simpson sits during an evidentiary hearing at Clark County District Court in Las Vegas, Nev., Thursday. Simpson, who is currently serving a nine-to-33-year sentence in state prison for armed robbery and kidnapping, is using a writ of habeas corpus to seek a new trial.
Credit: AP/Las Vegas Review-Journal/Jeff Scheid
Major Tom to ground control: On Sunday astronaut Chris Hadfield recorded the first music video from space, a cover of David Bowie's "Space Oddity."
Credit: AP/NASA/Chris Hadfield
When it rains it pours. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference Thursday with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, inexplicably inspiring an #umbrellagate Twitter meme.
Credit: AP/Jacquelyn Martin
A smoke plume rises high above a road block at the intersection of County A and Ross Road east of Solon Springs, Wis., Tuesday. No injuries were reported, but the the wildfire caused evacuations across northwestern Wisconsin.
Credit: AP/The Duluth News-Tribune/Clint Austin
Recent Slide Shows
- 1 of 11