Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) looks like the kind of character you’d expect to see starring in a classic Western. The colorful guide of a small wagon train, his face nearly obscured by a mop of ropy hair and a bushy beard, he wears theatrically fringed buckskin and loves to tell stories about his past adventures. But this self-styled hero is a legend only in his own mind.
Director Kelly Reichardt and her frequent collaborator, screenwriter Jonathan Raymond (he also wrote Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy), are hardly the first filmmakers to deconstruct the dime-novel mythology that shaped our view of the West. The disconnect between the actual people who settled the West and the stories we tell about these men (and yes, the stories are almost always about men) is one of the givens of post-50s Westerns, providing the theme for movies like The Man who Shot Liberty Valance.
By the mid-60s, that disconnect was accepted widely enough to be satirized in movies like Cat Ballou, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and True Grit. But Kid Shelleen, Butch and Sundance, and Rooster Cogburn were all loveable eccentrics who ultimately lived up to their hype. Meek is a much darker figure, part of a neo-Western wave of self-styled heroes (the first may have been Little Big Man’s General Custer) who are actually villains. The ego-blinded poseurs in this blustering brotherhood may not mean any harm, but their actions often have lethal consequences. As Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) says of their leader in Meek's Cutoff: “Is he ignorant or is he just plain evil? That’s my quandary; it’s impossible to know.”
We join Meek and his scrawny band of followers as they trek through a dry, scrubby, mostly flat expanse of 19th century Oregon. For most of the film’s 104 minutes, the only sounds are the squeal of an axle and the rumble of wagon wheels on rocky ground, occasionally accompanied by some unsettling strings, but we eventually learn that the settlers—three couples and one pre-teen boy—followed Meek on what was supposed to be a shortcut. He said it would take about two weeks to reach their destination, but it’s been five and they have no idea where they are or how long it will take to get to a place where they can settle down. What’s worse, they’re running out of food and don’t know where to find the water they need more desperately with every passing day.
It takes a while to adjust to the sparseness of the dialogue, but once we do it begins to feel—as it does in Reichardt and Raymond’s other films—as if silence is a kind of integrity. Emily and her husband, Solomon (Will Patton) have a more equitable relationship than the other couples, so he tells her at night what the men have discussed during the day and clearly values her opinion, but even their talks are terse and punctuated by long silences. Certainly Meek’s tall tales are just one of the tricks he uses to lead people astray, something we’re not meant to fall for. Reichardt makes that clear the first time we hear him tell one, focusing on Emily’s stony reaction before cutting to Meek and the boy he’s enchanting.
When the group picks up an Indian who’s been shadowing them and takes him captive, some of them hoping he will lead them to water while others fear that he’ll set them up for an ambush, words starts to seem even more irrelevant as the Indian (Rod Rondeaux) speaks in a language the settlers don’t understand or stares uncomprehendingly while they debate whether to follow him or kill him.
Emily starts out without much more say than the Indian in this (white) male-dominated world, but Reichard and Raymond flip the power structure on its head by filming most of the story from her perspective. That point of view keeps us grounded us in the day-to-day texture of the group’s life, immersed first in their long daily trudges under the blazing sun and then in the chores the women do every morning and night. Even when the men gather to decide what to do next the camera stays with the women, focusing on their speculation rather than the men’s decisions, which come to seem more and more arbitrary and futile. Meeks’ Cutoff has a kind of Zen vibe, its focus purely on the journey, not the destination.
Forever on the move and never arriving, the group seems trapped in a Mobius strip. Reichard occasionally emphasizes that feeling by doing a slow fade from one shot of the group on the move to another, making the characters look frozen in place even as they move through space. Her nearly square frame also keeps them confined, shutting out the gorgeous panoramas we’re used to seeing in Westerns.
The real Stephen Meeks led a much larger group of Oregon settlers astray over a “shortcut” that came to be called Meek’s Cutoff. It was apparently a grueling journey during which oxen fell in their traces, children and old folks died of disease, and exhausted scouts were too weak to dismount when they finally reached help. Reichardt’s film doesn’t include many such climactic moments, and even the ones it includes are underplayed: When a man who starves himself to save his family finally collapses, for instance, the camera films his fall from a great distance. Yet there’s plenty of drama in Meek’s Cutoff as we ride the waves of doubt, anger, resentment, hope, fear, and paranoia that pass through the settlers while they make and remake their minds.
As stripped-down and primal as a Beckett play, Meek’s Cutoff is an existential drama about a universal dilemma: How do you choose your path in life when you don’t know where you’re going or who to trust—especially if you’re told that you don’t get to choose?
Written for TimeOFF