With the stunning Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Kelly Reichardt brings the same considered, thoughtful, slow-burn approach to historical drama that she brought to her superb contemporary-set films, Old Joy (2006) and Wendy and Lucy (2008). As compelling as those two movies were, they don’t quite prepare the viewer for the awesome dramatic power and intensity of Meek’s Cutoff, a work of astounding scope and breadth and beauty. Set in 1845, it’s the story of three families who’ve broken off the “main-stem” of the Oregon Trail and are being conducted by a mountain-man, Stephen Meek, over the Cascade Mountains. With water and food supplies running low, the families have lost faith in Meek’s abilities to get them to their destination, and when the group encounter a lone Indian on the trail, they capture him to use as a guide to the terrain.
Reichardt’s images are extraordinary: mythic, sometimes Malickian, but never held so long that they seem overly-composed. The movie breathes and flows, and it makes the viewer alert to every mood, every moment of tenderness, every shift in power among the group. (The final shift comes at the movie’s brilliantly- judged conclusion, where it’s recognised by a character we never believed could make that acknowledgement, and it’s an unforgettable, quietly heroic moment.) The film also has the advantage of a beauty of a screenplay by the director’s regular collaborator Jon Raymond and performances - from Michelle Williams, Will Patton, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Ron Rondeaux and Bruce Greenwood (almost unrecognisable as the wild-haired, shaggy-bearded Meek) - that simply couldn’t be bettered. Engrossing, haunting and convincing in every detail, this is a masterpiece.