Film Reviews

Meek's Cutoff Kelly Reichardt

Rating - 9/10

If such a term has come to fruition, Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, which treks across the Oregon Trail in the mid-nineteenth century, exemplifies the “Post-Contemporary Western.”  Numerous Acid or Anachronistic Westerns (El Topo, Walker, Dead Man) have surfaced in the past several decades and classic re-imaginings (3:10 to Yuma, True Grit) in recent years, but Reichardt’s invigorating film offers a singular artistic take with its factual basis on the “Terrible Trail” of August 1845.  Like a modern High Noon, Meek’s Cutoff successfully mystifies and breaks standard Western archetypes, primarily the nature of good and evil, the role of women, and the definable hero.  Reichardt brilliantly uses natural light and wide-ranging points of view to heighten general uncertainty and create a story of three families and their gruff despotic guide, Stephen Meek.  In a Lonely Place critic Graham Fuller describes screenwriter Jon Raymond’s genesis for the Meek character from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian novel.  Resituating one of McCarthy’s “flamboyant sociopaths” within a family community seemed to be a suitable scenario for the screen.

In naturalistic silence, the film begins as the men and women methodically cross a river to plan their route ahead.  Emily and Solomon Tetherow (Michelle Williams and Will Patton), the more level-headed and mature couple, discuss, by lantern-light, the plot thus far in urgently hushed tones.  Evidently, deviation from the main stem of the trail was ill-advised (as Thomas Gately [Paul Dano] carves ‘LOST’ on a fallen tree before any dialogue).  There is open speculation amongst the couples that Meek may have been hired to purposely divert American immigrants; however, no one can convincingly vouch one way or the other.  Because Meek at times provides distinct advice, the film’s intrigue is built upon the ambiguity of the path to death or salvation.  The dilemma becomes further complicated when nameless Native American of the Cayuse tribe is found spying on the group on horseback.  He is subsequently hogtied and captured by Meek and Solomon and kept prisoner with his life in the balance at every turn.  Of course, either fearing emasculation or exposure of his own motives, Meek continually tries to rile the others to execute the Cayuse (“You people have no idea what you’re dealing with,” he warns).  Others, like Emily, believe his knowledge of the terrain may lead them to clean water and their eventual destination toward the Coast.  Meek’s uneasiness escalates as his leadership role exponentially diminishes, assumed by the one he deems a “heathen.”  Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian U.K. writes how the party’s inability to communicate with the Native American instills him with a competing mythical force to the often solitarily-framed Meek, “who may be their destroyer or their only hope of survival.”

Defining Reichardt’s Post-Western is the modernist perspective, as she and Raymond strive to subvert masculine heroism in favor of feminine courage and rationality through Emily.  In the face of descent, her character emerges as the party’s triumphant voice, usurping even her husband with the tenacity to challenge Meek’s threats on the Native’s life and empty assertions (“We’re not lost; we’re just finding our way”).  In the reading of historical journals for the film’s preparation, Reichardt is said to have learned of a “different picture in the way the travels had been captured in Westerns, which are made up of masculine moments of conflict and conquering.  The diaries give you a perspective of what it’s like to be outside that and watching it.”  Visually approaching the film in this manner allows Reichardt to uncover something extraordinary – she captures the essence of the Western landscape by harnessing the peripherals of a “Classical Western.”  A little more than a third of the way through the film, Stephen Meek shares a philosophical outline about the differences between women and men.  “Women are created on the principle of chaos; the chaos of creation, disorder, bringing new things into the world,” he brokenly conveys.  “Men are created on the principle of destruction.  It’s like cleansing, ordering destruction…  Chaos and destruction; the two genders are always at it…”  This quote can be assigned to gender roles of the films themselves.  As opposed to the “Classical Westerns” defined by violent dueling forces with a victor, Reichardt’s contemporary work may be defined as ‘chaotic’ in comparison but not just due to her creation of a new feminine perspective; it resides in the film’s muddled situation on the threshold.  Enveloping the tonal unconventionality is composer Jeff Grace’s minimalist approach to modern composition with droning strings that seamlessly integrate with the verisimilar silence of the Trail that is punctuated by the squeaking sounds of the wagon wheels and clanging of metal pots.  Perhaps the film is aurally synchronized to a certain perfection so the distinction is less significant than the stymied mood and stirring questions it facilitates.

For the depictions of a journey across unsettled land 165 years ago, Meek’s Cutoff certainly brims with both existential and biblical themes in relation to the contemporary.  Uncertainty and paranoia (particularly relating to economic stability) loom large presently; literal religious scripture continues to shape the political and social spectrums.  On a smaller scale, the same issues affect the Tetherow, White, and Gately families.  The party’s struggles often relate directly to lack of stable resources and water; Millie Gately’s hysterics cultivate her husband’s exaggerated accusations, and the Whites maintain their biblical recitations. In extrapolated terms, Meek’s aforementioned speech echoes preachers’ false doomsday proclamations from the millennium and leading up to the Mayan prophecy of 2012.  (Most recently, televangelist Harold Camping said it would end on May 21, before the inevitable revision [to October 21], of course).  These so-called revelations are channeled through both doubt and suspicion.  Like Meek, certain religious propagators seek allegiance through those speculative means.  Perhaps the one glimmer of true optimism within the film is the steadfastness of the most devoutly pious family, the Whites.  In an early scene, the son, Jimmy, recites verse 3:22 of Genesis.  “Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.  Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and live forever…”  Referencing Adam and Eve departing the Garden of Eden, the scripture seems to precipitate the film’s ultimate events.  While Reichardt and Raymond draw imagery and themes from the text, neither allows the explicit formation of good and evil.  Instead, the end of the film – a riddled omen, a chapter’s cliffhanger to an epic novel, a crossroads – reflects its prior conundrums.  Meek’s final words, “We’re all just playing our parts now.  This was written long before we got here,” seem to justify the biblical comparisons to Genesis and notions of fate.  But the tale’s dismissal of his claims also acknowledges the push into the great existential unknown with or without Reichardt’s camera or hand of God.  Meek’s Cutoff is an imaginative film that unleashes the power of modernist cinema in a past life to become a seminal Western of the twenty-first century.