Kelly Reichardt's stunning Meek's Cutoff strips the Western of empty gestures 

Meek Shall Not Inherit

Meek Shall Not Inherit

Even good Westerns these days tend to look like pageants — excuses for people to dress up and go through ritualized motions of gunfights, shootouts and hard rides. To an extent, you can blame Sergio Leone's operatic spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s, glorious as they are, which fetishized every sidelong glance and reach for a pistol. Over time, the gestures in something like the Young Guns movies or The Quick and the Dead became more important than whatever motivated them, as if the gunslingers were assuming predetermined roles in a passion play.

Along comes Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff, a kind of anti-Leone Western, to reassert the virtues of economy, purpose and tight construction. The time and setting, established in the same breath as the title, is 1845 Oregon; a wagon fords a river, followed by several settlers. The crossing hews closely to real time — not because long takes are the rage these days in art movies, but because nothing for people headed west in 1845 would be hastened by modern convenience. Under Reichardt's scrutiny, each action takes on weight because of the time and effort behind it. You want a drink of water, you'll hoist that big wooden bucket; you want to wash that dish, you'll haul it down to the creek.

Those duties take on a different cast after the movie's early scenes — about the time we realize we're watching a settler laboriously carve a message into a downed tree: "LOST." (Even the speed of desperation has been slowed.) Three couples have hired a guide named Meek (an ideal Bruce Greenwood, less Rooster Cogburn than a boastful capon), whose main qualification seems to be his resemblance to a Wild West show ringmaster. His swaggering confidence passes for knowledge. As a skeptical settler (Michelle Williams) figures out what Meek is increasingly unable to hide — he doesn't know where the hell he's going — the trailblazer gets a break. He secures a convenient diversion: a lone American Indian captive (Rod Rondeaux) who provides a handy focus for the party's fears.

If Leone brought enormity to the Western genre — a mythic scale that made every dusty street into Monument Valley — Reichardt brings gravity. The cinematographer, Christopher Blauvelt, uses the same roughly square 1.33:1 aspect ratio that Anthony Mann filmed his early 1950s Westerns in, and Reichardt employs the boxy frame with similar skill. There's space all around the characters, but having no clear-cut path or destination makes it eerily claustrophobic — an effect heightened by the sci-fi desolation of lunar salt flats and empty plains.

Being lost in this landscape builds a steady, unrelieved tension, and the weight Reichardt gives all those mundane chores in the early scenes pays off when the situation calls for something as grave as a stand-off with guns — a beloved genre convention whose urgency and underlying resolve is fully felt here. When you see how much trouble it takes to lock and load a rifle, you get a much stronger sense of the determination it takes to point one at somebody.

Meek's Cutoff, written by Jon Raymond with an admirable emphasis on action over language and exposition, has been read as a Bush II allegory of a corrupt leader guiding unquestioning followers into the abyss. The movie's much better than that. With Williams, an actress who projects a questing mind and hard head, as the movie's acting intelligence, it's more a story of misplaced faith and a populace starting to listen to its conscience. The ruthless manifest destiny Meek represents may be exposed as a con, but in the boldly unresolved ending, there are no guarantees the route the settlers choose will lead anywhere but a different doom.

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