Saturday, August 6, 2011
As desolate and deceptive as the barren Oregon plain where it is set, Meek’s Cutoff is about the perils of living on too much faith and too little water. In 1845, a small group of settlers place their confidence in Stephen Meek, a scraggly frontiersman of dubious merit and questionable hygiene. The water barrels fill with dust and trust turns to fear, leading the group to switch allegiances to a captured native who they hope will lead them to water. The choice facing the settlers is simple, and impossible: the cocky boasts and false promises of Meek, or the inscrutable silence of the Indian. Everything becomes defined by what it is not: Meek as not a guide, the Indian as not Meek. “Hell is full of bears, but there are no bears here,” Meek says, the implication being that this place, no matter how awful it seems, cannot be hell. But if not hell, then what?
Director Kelly Reichardt has made a name for herself as a specialist in small films with big implications, and Meek’s Cutoff is easily the peak of her career so far. There are obvious strains of political allegory (Meek will likely remind viewers of a certain beady-eyed Texan plutocrat), but the film’s strength lies in its terrifying ambiguities: a fleeting smile across the Indian’s face as the pioneers lose a wagon, the tree at the end that appears like a mirage. Is it a symbol of hope, or is that too obvious? Apparently so, because it turns out the tree of life is half dead. But the ending is Reichardt’s best trick. Every gift is a curse here, every promise a potential lie—especially the promise of resolution. (If you’re going in circles, where do you stop?) All we are given is a morose prophecy from Meek and a slow fade-out on oblivion. The trick is that even though we may never find out what happens to these characters, we already know where this trail leads. History picks up where the film leaves off.