The year is 1845, the earliest days of the Oregon Trail, and a wagon team of three families has hired the mountain man Stephen Meek to guide them over the Cascade Mountains. Claiming to know a short cut, Meek leads the group on an unmarked path across the high plain desert, only to become lost in the dry rock and sage. Over the coming days, the emigrants must face the scourges of hunger, thirst and their own lack of faith in each other's instincts for survival. When a Native American wanderer crosses their path, the emigrants are torn between their trust in a guide who has proven himself unreliable and a man who has always been seen as the natural enemy.
Meek's Cutoff is an exemplary entry in the canon of revisionist Westerns, a sub-category of that most famous American film genre (although how much more can be "revised" after fifty years of mucking with the formula is questionable). Anyway, "classical" Westerns are in short demand these days. Most modern entries in the genre self-consciously play with the cinematic legacy of the film Western (see: this year's Rango), so it is refreshing that Meek's Cutoff is less concerned with what a film Western is and more concerned with what the American West actually was. Reteaming director Kelly Reichardt with her Wendy and Lucy muse Michelle Williams, Meek's Cutoff has been dubbed a feminist Western, which is no doubt true, but the film hews too closely to historical fact and documentary attention to detail to really be viewed as a picture with an overt political agenda.
The title refers to a real trail just off the famous Oregon Trail that took wagon trains through the little-seen deserts of northeastern Oregon. The trail was named for Stephen Meek, a trapper and guide who led pioneer families through the barren and untested landscape. In the film, Meek is played by Bruce Greenwood, buried in a dirty, grizzled beard and garbled, raspy speech. In 1845, the real Meek blazed the trail with settlers, but the journey was full of hardships: oxen died, families fell ill and died, and the pilgrims began to doubt Meek's familiarity with the area. In the film, the settlers are comprised of three couples: fierce and practical Emily and Solomon Tetherow (Williams and Will Patton), pregnant Glory and skittish William White (Shirley Henson and Neal Huff), and young couple Millie and Thomas Gately (Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano). The families begin to suspect that Meek is leading them astray on purpose and, with water supplies quickly dwindling, the men debate whether to hang Meek for his treachery. Tensions are heightened when they encounter a Native American (Rod Rondeaux) who may or may not know the way back to water and civilization.
In keeping with the demythologizing work of most revisionist Westerns, Meek's Cutoff was shot in the unusual 1:37:1 aspect ratio, which creates a boxy, square frame. It was the standard ratio was many films during Classic Hollywood, but since Westerns embraced Vistavision and widescreen landscapes, the format has been little scene. The effect highlights the expansiveness of the sky, emphasizing the flatness of an Oregonian desert that seems eternally the same. The settlers move across the frame in clusters and in lines, but they never seem to make any lateral progress. They are what Thomas Gately carves into a dead tree trunk: "Lost."
Reichardt and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt lend a painterly touch to the same deserts the real Meek crossed in 1845 and the landscape appears mainly unchanged. The pale desert's yellow sand and purple sage is reflected in the women's humble dresses: pink, blue and tan. As the film progresses, the settlers accumulate a truly remarkable amount of dirt and dust on their wind-chapped hands and faces. The longer they travel, the less "white" they are. All things become monochrome: the settlers, the land, and their mysterious Indian prisoner.
The Academy Ratio lends a unique subjectivity to the film's point of view. The hidden margins of the frame consciously represent the obscured POV of the female settlers whose bonnets shield them from the sun as much as they do from their husband's decision-making. Much of the film is composed of Emily Tetherow simply observing the men from a distance, straining to make out what they are deciding, quietly formulating plans of her own. The other characters are likewise obscured in some way, either by hat brims, dirt, or beards (Meek's own mighty facial hair informs his inscrutable braggadocio and larger than life persona). The entire film has a feeling of being at once closed-off perpetually expansive.
The end of the film does not afford the characters or the audience any sense of closure. Still not having found water, the Indian walks off into the landscape; it's not clear whether he is leading them to paradise or leaving the settlers to wallow in their own misfortunes. It's a reminder of the unending arc of frontier progress: the pilgrims of Meek's Cutoff were just the first wave of white people to "settle" the American West. For whites and Native Americans alike, there were many hardships and ambiguities still to come.
Meek's Cutoff is an intensely quiet film, both in its lack of incident and dialogue. The settlers do not have much to say to Meek or to each other; they only have energy to complete the grueling tasks of day-to-day survival. The film divides the settlers into three distinct groups based on sound design: Meek, a motor-mouth, spinning tales taller than oaks and doling out nuggets of frontier wisdom like "Hell's full of Indians, my friend;" the men who congregate away from their wives, formulating plans in harsh whispers that float on the wind across to the women who overhear their husbands' conversations in fragments. During their long days' journey, even the settlers' private thoughts seem interrupted by the thundering wind and the rumbling of wagon wheels on hard-packed dirt.
Drama, Period Piece
April 8, 2011