' ' Cinema Romantico: Meek's Cutoff

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Meek's Cutoff

Welcome to a momentum-free zone. Director Kelly Reichardt’s take on the Oregon Trail wagon train opus has no interest in maintaining any sort of momentum it begins to generate, probably because those hopeful settlers coming across the continent never got much momentum going either. You’re making your way and things seem all right but then you come across a river and you have to ford it, you have to ford the oxen and the wagons and tiny birds you’re keeping in cages and then you have to dry off and get everything packed back up and then start again. An axle breaks on the wagon and you can’t just hit up Jake’s Auto Parts for a replacement, nope, you’ve gotta re-fashion it yourself. Your wagon train happens upon a steep ravine and so you have to lower the wagons one-by-one with every member of your party holding onto it for dear life by a rope you hope holds.

The characters in "Meek’s Cutoff" are forever moving, hopefully forward, hopefully to catch up with the Columbia River which will hopefully take them to the mystical Willamette Valley, but for their all their movement it feels distinctly, purposely, like they never get anywhere. The empty rocky vistas always look the same. It’s always one more hill, it’s always “one day, maybe two.” In quiet, plaintive tones Reichardt implicitly captures how it must have felt to be these brave and reckless pioneers, not to suggest she, as they say, puts us in their shoes, but in that helpless feeling of going and going and going and getting nowhere.

The wagon train consists of Solomon and Emily Tetherow (Will Patton and Michelle Williams), Thomas and Millie Gateley (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan) and William and Glory White (Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson) and their young son. Their faithful (in theory) leader is Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) who has the buckskins and the big, brawny beard and the tall tales but seemingly no sense of direction. Everyone think he’s lost. Not that they’d call him on it. Well, eventually they do. At least, Emily does. “We ain’t lost,” he replies. “We’re just finding our way.” (Read: We’re lost.)

They need water, of course, to survive and Meek leads them to a watering hole only to deduce that, tragically, they can’t water there. Why not? At this point Reichardt does a curious, brilliant thing. We watch from the point of view of the bonnet-wearing women as the men stand a little ways off and debate. At first I thought the volume on my TV was turned down too low and so I turned it up. I still couldn’t hear anything. Maybe,”Can’t water” and “Head south” but that was it. It’s a subtle shift in point-of-view and Meek’s Cutoff is all about point-of-view. The camera remains with the wagon train for the duration of the movie. There are a few wide shots of the wagon train making its way but these are only to underscore the helplessness, not to provide bearings, and if characters ride off or on up ahead the camera does not follow and stays behind. And at this point at the watering hole Reichardt, working in conjunction with her screenwriter Jon Raymond, slyly shifts the primary point-of-view to Emily.

She’s the first one who sights the Indian (Rod Rondeaux), watching the group silently from a ridge. Later she sees him again and chases him off. They debate. Is the Indian alone? Should they let him be? Should they track him down and kill him before he brings them harm? Solomon and Meek ride off and capture the Indian. Solomon wants to let him live because perhaps he can guide them to water. Meek wants to slit his throat on the spot. The Indian lives, but rather than make him a symbol the film leaves him at arm’s length, too. He can’t understand them and they can’t understand him. It’s just more disorientation and even with the Indian possibly working as guide they still don’t seem to know where they’re going (possibly because the Indian doesn’t want them to know where they’re going, but who knows?!).

The pace of "Meek’s Cutoff" may seem slow in the context of what we are conditioned to so often expect, yet the sensation gleaned in every scene and in nearly every frame is one of desperate and fearful urgency, real lives being played out before you with real stakes, characters that simply exist rather than coming across as great actors greatly playing their parts (which they are). The cinematography is breathless but leaves you pinned in and occasionally claustrophobic. It can be discomforting to watch but eventually you realize you’ve taken this journey with these people and you’ve reached the same point. The actual end leaves many questions unanswered while still working as a picture perfect resolution of the film’s emotional arc. Is it strange that the final words made me think of the key wisdom in another 2011 western film, the animated "Rango"? Try as they might, these characters can’t walk out on their story.

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