“WE’VE COME TO A TERRIBLE PLACE”: Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff

Michelle Williams in Meek’s Cutoff. Image: Oscilloscope Laboratories

A whiskered man guides a lumbering ox along the banks of a river as two women in wide bonnets wade across, carrying parakeet cages high over their heads; the birds twitter and flit, the ox makes placid, amiable ox-noises, the flaps of covered wagons snap in the breeze. An embroidered title card has already told us where we are—“Oregon, 1845”—and the opening moments of Meek’s Cutoff are a lulling evocation of a certain imagined frontier (the one where we domesticate the wild by bringing to it the hearthside’s quiet manners, our pets and our grandfather clocks). Cut to a man methodically carving something onto a log—a guide for those who follow?—which, on closer inspection, turns out to be one word, addressed to no one, like a hopeless scrawl of graffiti: “LOST.” Oh, that’s where we are. The next time we see water, it’ll be sloshing out of a barrel and onto the ground, the last of a dwindling supply.

The burnt loveseat in Old Joy’swilderness, the tattooed campfire punks in Wendy and Lucy, the desert in Meek’s that doesn’t feel parched so much as scorched: when I think of Kelly Reichardt’s three most recent films (which she and her co-writer Jon Raymond have called their “Oregon Trilogy”), words like “fallout,” and “aftermath” come to mind. Meek’s Cutoff is the bleakest of the three, which is not at all to say the “best” or the “worst,” but that the pleasures it affords are intimately tied up with the ways in which it’s designed to test our patience and to subvert out expectations of “the Western.” Another filmmaker—most other filmmakers—would have mined these characters for drama by suggesting a glimpse of success in their venture, but after the deceptive loveliness of those first few minutes, Reichardt’s framing and mise-en-scène are not modest about telegraphing the outcome of the film: every shot screams, in one way or another, “they’re not going to make it!” The drama in Meek’s Cutoff never stems from the question of whether the three couples at the film’s center are going to reach their destination, but the question of when they’ll finally face the fact that they don’t have a prayer. This is genuinely contemplative cinematic storytelling.

The “Meek” of the title is Stephen (Bruce Greenwood), a hirsute contractor who specializes in shepherding settlers West, constantly affirming his own credentials with tales of bear-wrestling and Indian murder even as he leads three couples and a child deeper and deeper into inescapable straits. Emily and Solomon Tetherow (Michelle Williams and Will Patton) are the cool heads in a trio that includes the Gatelys (young and prone to histrionics) and the Whites (god-fearing, with a son in tow). It is early on that Emily becomes a de facto point of identification for the audience, not only because she argues with Meek outright, responding to his raconteur’s garrulousness with confrontational skepticism, but also because she seems to know in her bones that the journey Westward has been folly (“Your optimism!” she says to her husband, with a mixture of wonder and pity).

This is not to say that she’s willing to give up; one of Meek’s most thrilling inversions is its quiet insistence that Emily is congenitally more equipped to contend with the troubles at hand than Meek or any of the men. Rebecca Solnit has written of the Western as a “conservative genre” that “enshrines a condition in which masculinity has achieved the status of nature rather than culture.” Williams’s Emily (in addition to being the only character in the film who actually shoots a gun) challenges the idea of the Western’s nature as one best forged by the cowboy, and complicates the hardwired definition of the genre. Meek, after all, is the closest thing the movie has to a movie-style cowboy, but he both embodies and sells outright the myth. “We’re not lost,” he tells Emily with no small amount of relish, “we’re just finding our way.”

The conflict between Meek and the settlers comes to a head after they capture an Indian (listed in the credits as “The Indian”). The settlers (especially the Tetherows) want to keep the Indian alive in the hopes that he’ll lead them to water; Meek insists that he’ll lead them straight into dangerous territory and that he should be killed on the spot. Though Meek eventually defers to them, he continues to urge violence, and it’s to the film’s credit that the Indian (played by Rod Rondeaux) never seems good or bad or even “dignified”—he simply is, another implacable obstacle to the settler’s journey because they cannot fathom or understand him. Meek’s sets up a series of barriers to the characters’ knowledge and communications with one another, starting with Meek’s tall tales and misdirections, moving on through the males-only colloquies about what the wagon train should do next—the women stand at a distance, watching, while Reichardt’s sound design keeps the men nearly inaudible. The Indian, with his foreign tongue and impassive face, is both a personification of the land and the terminus for their efforts to know it. In the end, he stands chanting over a settler who’s become violently ill, but whether he’s praying for that man’s life or death is a mystery.

The last lines of Meek’s Cutoff are spoken by Meek himself, as the group yet again fails to find water and the Indian wanders off into the distance: “This was all written long before we got here.” Indeed, but if Reichardt is leading her characters to the gallows it is not as the executioner but as the priest; she demands that we see the condemned before they’re gone for good. The last haunting look on Michelle Williams’s face as she watches the Indian disappear into the landscape is a woman facing her own death. 

Contributor

Paul Felten

PAUL FELTEN is a screenwriter based in New York City.

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