Give Meek's Cutoff, a languorous neo-Western by indie darling Kelly Reichardt, this much: It definitely makes you feel lost in the wilderness. Squinting at the screen, you'll ache over the predicament of the characters, a small band of frontier people heading for Oregon in 1845 but finding only desert and frustration. Then again, you'll need to squint anyway, just to make out a glimmer of a face, a semblance of personality. Reichardt, talented enough to know exactly what she's doing, initially refuses us a hero: The women are bonnet-clad and mostly kept in shadow, the men toil in the earthy middle distance. Their leader, Stephen Meek (Greenwood), is a fraud, huffing fatuously from behind the bushiest of beards (go ahead and call it the George W. Bushiest). Onward they trod.
The movie begins to feel starchy and corrective---this is how the pioneers suffered, it seems to be saying, hill by torturous hill, and it's suddenly as if you're back in school. Perhaps it's good to be reminded, after the four-square True Grit, of the Old West's potential for subversion; the genre hasn't been a celebration of Waynian swagger in a while. Still, the pill needn't be this bitter. Worse, Reichardt herself seems to lose her nerve, thrusting her Wendy and Lucy star, Michelle Williams, into an anachronistic feminist moment, hoisting a rifle and a can of whup-ass in defense of a lost Native American. Meek's Cutoff has found its passionate defenders, those who admire it almost because of its meandering, heavily politicized nature. Yet you might try it---and try it again---and still only grab a handful of dust.
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