It is suddenly postage stamp-sized, the screen. A harsh, constricting 4:3 - Academy ratio, they called it way back when, though it will become uncertain whether they meant AMPAS or the Royal Academy, so painterly are the images it results in. For anyone who's ever declared they dont make 'em like they used to, Kelly Reichardt's Western Meek's Cutoff will be reassuring, at least in form; in its content, however, it's very different and more challenging besides. Reichardt is the minimalist screen trekker whose Old Joy took two friends into the woods on a 70-minute hiking expedition, and whose Wendy and Lucy could be synopsised (if not entirely summed up) in two lines: girl loses dog, girl looks for dog. Meek's Cutoff retains the services of Michelle Williams (Wendy in that earlier film) among Reichardt's largest ensemble cast to date, but - as if to rebalance itself - proceeds from the most pared-back scenario the director has arrived at yet. Hence, perhaps, the size of the image.
These are the movements of a wagon train, turning circles on the salt flats of Oregon in 1844. Three couples - newlyweds Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, pregnant Shirley Henderson and her hubby Neal Huff, progressive Williams and Will Patton - stagger onwards under the so-called guidance of tracker Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, liberated from a run of tedious smoothie roles beneath a wild mane of hair). Whether by accident or design, Meek has them lost: between a lot of trudging, there's just enough time to note the party's water supplies are dwindling, their patience similarly running out. The nightly attention paid to each wagon's ailing wooden spokes comes to seem emblematic: this is an expedition where the wheels are slowly starting to come off.
The range Westerns of the studio era - everything from Stagecoach (1939) to Wagon Master (1950) - followed a dynamic trajectory, expanding beyond the limitations of the frame for the edification of an America in the process of myth-making and nation-building. Meek's Cutoff, by contrast, hews to a tight, inward-looking, anti-romantic line: had it arrived at the time of Obama's "Yes We Can" campaign, it would have appeared weirdly out of time and place, but it makes a greater sense for having emerged a few years down the line, at a moment of doubt and uncertainty, when it's become clear any progress towards the promised land will be slow and difficult. (We might have heard its wheels turning once again during the recent debt negotiations.) This sense of perspective is key to a scholarly work, one that hunkers down to the business of squirreling out all manner of ambiguities and counter-histories from the space between mountains and the silence between words.
This interpretation of Reichardt's film as a parable of America's present position gathers further heft when Meek ropes in a native American who's been tailing the party, and the camp is obliged to discuss what to do with their prisoner: retain his services, and trust him and his knowledge of the area to help plot a way through the wilderness, or slit his throat there and then, to avoid any additional drain on their resources? "They don't think about life the same way we do... it's a proven fact," Kazan offers, in a line with more than a faint echo of the American Right about it. In fact, we should credit Reichardt, co-writer Jon Raymond and the actor Rod Rondeaux for making the character of the Indian almost entirely unreadable, and for offering no reassuring nods or winks as to which way he's going to go - indeed, the film's resonant ending depends on this being the case. When the native stands over the ailing Huff, we cannot be sure whether his (untranslated) chants are intended to revive the patient, or to put the final nail in his coffin, and the sensation arises we're in no more privileged a position than the characters themselves.
Mitigating against this political reading of the film is Reichardt's becalmed fascination with the specifics of America as it was then, divided not so much by Left and Right (such labels, such bearings become useless when you're stranded in the middle of nowhere), as into men and women, and it's amazing just how much the director can tell us about her characters' comparative states of mind simply by their positioning in this most reduced of frames. The men of the party pick up the slack, go charging off on a whim, and - as has become traditional over the centuries - steadfastly refuse to ask for directions, compounding the expedition's plight yet further; the wives, meanwhile, hold down the fort, displaying the flickers of empathy and intuition that maybe, just maybe, point the way forward.
You could describe Meek's Cutoff as a profoundly feminist film - sparse and open to the elements, it remains, from first light to last, subject to personal interpretation - but in the end, it's also about the winching of wagons down an incline, and what happens when your water spills out in the dirt. It's about hands and faces that are allowed to be filthy, in ways that more deodorised Westerns don't. And it's about actors having to push and strain to register as more than mere figures in a landscape, which - in the main - they do. (Williams, in particular, does more with less than any actress I've seen for quite some while.) Form and content are unified in one sense in Meek's Cutoff, in that it shows what it is, and it is what it shows - hard work - but it's this singular directorial talent's most completely realised and haunting vision to date.
Meek's Cutoff is available on DVD from Monday.