AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2010
By Don Simpson | October 26, 2010
Starring: Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Paul Dano, Shirley Henderson, Will Patton, Zoe Kazan, Neal Huff, Tommy Nelson, Rod Rondeaux
The opening title — which, hand-stitched in embroidery, establishes the intricately crafted nature of Meek’s Cutoff — informs us that the characters of this tale are on the Oregon Trail in 1845. A small caravan of three families with covered wagons tediously crosses a river, first by walking the contents of their wagons across, then returning for the wagons and animals. Outfitted in the shabby worn-out clothing of 19th-century emigrants, the characters concentrate intensely on the difficult task at hand and do not utter a single word. In fact no one speaks for the first several minutes of Meek’s Cutoff, that is until we hear the voice of a young boy (Tommy Nelson) reciting a Biblical passage about Eden from the Book of Genesis.
The incredibly harsh and barren landscape of Oregon Country is far from Eden; for these characters it must seem like a living hell. They are apparently lost, somewhere in the Great Basin, and water has become increasingly scarce. (The fading away of water is visually represented with a magnificent long dissolve from the final shot alongside the river to the next scene in which the caravan travels upon significantly more arid terrain.) Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), the guide who was hired to lead the caravan across the Cascade Mountains, is a grizzly (and not very meek) old man; and despite his unyielding sense of self-confidence, he appears to be a clueless leader who shepherds his clients towards an increasingly hopeless future. Apparently acting without thought or consideration of the possible consequences of his actions, Meek arrogantly trusts his initial assumptions and expects the caravan to follow him faithfully into oblivion with no questions asked. (Some might recognize Meek as a metaphor for the presidency of George W. Bush.)
When the caravan encounters a lone Cayuse Native American (Rod Rondeaux), Meek immediately advocates the killing of the savage (by instilling fear of the foreigner and dehumanizing him) while the de facto leader of the three families — Soloman Tetherow (Will Patton) — argues that the Cayuse man represents their only remaining chance of finding water. Soloman’s young wife Emily (Michelle Williams), seemingly the only other person to share her husband’s humanistic opinion, begins to provide the Cayuse man with food and water in an attempt to earn his trust, while the men continue their debate as to whether or not to kill him.
This is a world where the men cast every deciding vote (the women — all with opinions of their own — are available for consultation); while their wives cook, clean, sew and take care of the sick. (Emily succinctly summarizes the role of the three wives as “working like niggers.”) As with the embroidered title card at the onset of the film, director Kelly Reichardt obsesses on the menial and tedious handiwork of the characters — from the scrubbing of bowls to the stitching of moccasins to the kneading of dough to the repairing of wagon wheels. As with Reichardt’s Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff is an artfully poetic representation of the most minute laborious details of the working-class fight for survival. We can only guess that the three families of this caravan — similar to Wendy (from Wendy and Lucy) — are attempting to escape the over-population of the east coast, where they were most likely struggling financially, for the more peaceful environs to the west of the Cascades. They are not on this journey to become rich — these are not lazy or greedy characters, they obviously do not have a problem with getting their hands dirty — they probably just desire to no longer face the day-to-day struggle for survival. (The anti-capitalist symbolism inherent in their decision to not take the gold that they discover is absolutely priceless.)
Reichardt’s film — penned by Jonathan Raymond (Reichardt’s co-writer on Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy) — is, at least in theory, a western but with most of the genre’s conventions flipped completely inside out. Cinematographer Chris Blauvelt’s grand panoramas of the striking Oregonian vista is photographed in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio, which adds a unique sense of claustrophobia to the image. Reichardt and Blauvelt rely quite heavily on long and medium compositions, but the camera does occasionally cut to various characters’ facial expressions to convey meaning, intent or emotion. Some of the best reaction shots come from the Cayuse man while the caravan’s families are lowering their wagons by rope down a treacherous hill. His grimace, at least in my reading of it, conveys a feeling of disdain for the silly white people’s attachment to their personal possessions. It is as if he is saying, I could have walked to and from the water source by now but you damn white people are slowing me down with all that stuff that you are lugging around with you. When a family does determine that they are carrying too much weight, they toss a clock and a rocking chair out of their moving wagon (thus leaving symbols of time and leisure behind).
The importance that Americans place on materiality is a prominent issue in Meek’s Cutoff (as well as Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy). Compared to the simplicity of the Cayuse man’s existence, the white emigrants are hindered by their possessions; so much so that they prefer to walk alongside their wagons allowing their animals to only tow the weight of the furniture and cooking gear (thus granting more importance to their possessions than their own bodies). We come to realize that this journey might have been a lot quicker if they were riding on horseback carrying only their absolute bare necessities to survive. The unyielding isolation of the natural world in which the characters are completely enveloped is completely unsympathetic to their modern hardships.
Meek’s Cutoff discusses the implications of when constituents place their complete trust in leadership, and that trust is horribly abused by a leader who distorts facts in order to get his way. Meek represents how male leaders are prone to react too quickly, drastically and violently to certain situations; while Emily conveys the feminine techniques of decision-making as she carefully and thoughtfully contemplates every option, always considering future ramifications. Meek is prone to shooting first and asking questions later; while only in the most dire of circumstances does Emily choose to wield a weapon. The way that the men and women of this film approach communication is also drastically different — especially when confronted with the Cayuse man with whom they cannot communicate verbally. The men become frustrated, quickly resorting to violence; while Emily exudes patience and finds non-verbal means to communicate.
Filmmakers tend to forget that cinema is first and foremost a visual medium, and they rely on the crutch of dialogue rather than images to convey messages; but in this purely visual experience, Reichardt chooses not to explain anything. There are no concrete facts, everything that we are to take away from this film is purely left up to our interpretation of the images. The conclusion is a prefect example of just how far Reichardt will go in order to avoid conveying any absolutes. Nothing is resolved as Reichardt cleverly (though probably frustratingly for many viewers) leaves all of the film’s fundamental questions dangling in the arid Oregonian air.