Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

Directed by Kelly Reichardt

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In Meek’s Cutoff a small group consisting of three families and a hired guide get lost on their way to the Willamette Valley.  They are already lost when we meet them, and they remain lost when we leave them.  In the middle there is some deliberation, drama and finally the breakdown of strict gender roles.

It’s an existential western, with hardly any bullets fired.  There is no romanticism here though the crackling sounds of the earth, twigs and nightly fires do feel poetic in their own way.  The characters barely speak, they are often hidden in the shadows of bonnets, beards or the underexposed nighttime photography.  In search of water as they run out of what little they have left, the group trusts their guide, Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to lead them to somewhere with promise, but others distrust the man and his pompous confidence.

It’s the men who decide the proper course of action, while the women hang behind, setting up camp for the night or otherwise waiting to be commanded where to go.  In one telling scene we see the men from afar, regarding a body of water to see if it’s safe to drink and then deciding what to do next.  They are photographed to reflect the perspective of the women, namely Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams).  We see her framed in a tight shot, either waiting for instruction or growing more suspicious of the men and their inaction.

She is the closest thing the film has to a protagonist, and she’s the one who takes positive steps towards at least trying to survive.  When the group finds and holds prisoner a Native American, demanding that he lead them to water, it’s Emily who dares approach the contemplative figure, sewing together a hole in his shoes because, as she tells Millie (Zoe Kazan), she wants him to be in her debt.

Their situation will grow more despondent.  Not only do they see no signs of imminent civilization or oasis, but the longer they wither away in the desert the more they suspect the Native American has purposefully led him astray.  They grow weary of what’s to come and suspicious of what’s already passed.

Like with other Kelly Reichardt films this one is concerned with the journey, not where it leads us.  Her characters are often found in the midst of wandering, and we learn about them under turbulent circumstances.  They are running away from something or possibly naively wandering towards a goal they may never realize.  Her films focus on that path, and by refusing to show the beginning or end, all we have to look at is the journey itself.  You might say these are stories about transformation, highlighting that we’re always changing and perceived beginnings and ends are instead just the highways connecting other perceived concrete moments in time.

There is no beginning or end, just the current state and rate of transformation.  And yet the characters don’t always seem to change, they just continue to survive a little bit longer.  There is transformation within the dynamic of these settlers, with Meek finally declaring that he will trust Emily over his own guidance.  The group now defers to her, or so we’re led to believe, but Emily remains as she was before, quietly confident.  It is social transformation more than personal.

In other films the characters remain similarly static, even as they physically journey through forests and towns or just navigate a sort of listlessness in their own lives.  In Wendy & Lucy Michelle Williams plays a vagabond on her way to Alaska, in Old Joy it’s two old friends who briefly get lost on their way to a camping trip, and in River of Grass a stifled housewife and a bored young man flirt with the idea of becoming Bonnie & Clyde, nothing but the open road and the forces chasing them.

In Reichardt’s most recent film, Certain Women, the characters are rather immobile, but it’s us as the audience who float between their lives, three short films stitched together as one.  We might as well be the vagabond passing through, hitching a ride on the train which we see in the first shot of the entire film.  The perspective reflects the nature of most of her characters.

Meek’s Cutoff also happens to be beautiful to look at.  The sound is amplified, the west is textured, and it’s hard not to feel the dusty heat protruding from the screen like the static spirits in Poltergeist.  It feels ghostly, if only because the shapes of otherwise hidden, silhouetted characters trudge so stiffly through the wilderness.  Their personalities have been mostly beaten out of them by the need to survive, revealing themselves only in brief moments.  It is as though their spirits have fled them, fearful of what’s to come, and all that’s left are their flesh and bone bodies, moving onward as if on autopilot.

Up Next: Peppermint Candy (2000), Shallow Grave (1994), Wendy and Lucy (2008)

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