by Indy Datta
The almost sensational Meek’s Cutoff – which tells the story (loosely based on historical facts) of a small group of emigrants on the Oregon Trail who take the eponymous diversion from the main trail under the dubious guidance of lushly bearded blowhard Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) – seems, in isolation, to be a departure for director Kelly Reichardt from the somewhat literary miniaturism of Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy: a more story-driven genre piece (albeit in an uncompromising arthouse register) with an ensemble cast of recognisable names (Michelle Williams returns from Wendy and Lucy, and is joined by Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson). Viewed in the context of the earlier films, however, it seems more like a transition: the film-maker’s ethical, political and aesthetic concerns remain consistent even as the scope of the storytelling becomes more expansive and conventional.
Both Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, based on short stories by Jon Raymond (who also co-wrote both films, and takes sole writing credit on Meek’s Cutoff) benefit from the tension between the earnest academic liberalism of their narratives and the drily distanced tone Reichardt tells them in. Old Joy may seem at first acquaintance to be aesthetically unassertive to a fault, but its rich crop of ironies and counterpoints among elements such as the lead performances, Reichardt’s cool visual style, and the Greek chorus of progressive political angst provided by Air America Radio ultimately makes it both much funnier and more moving than the source text. In Wendy and Lucy, the refusal to disclose the workings of Wendy’s mind – the refusal to attempt to justify her (which Raymond’s short story does at length) – married to the imperious, impatient carriage of Michelle Williams’ performance, gives weight to her fear and grief without allowing sentimentality to overwhelm the film.
In Meek’s Cutoff the tale and the telling seem more in harmony than in the earlier films: there’s no obvious equivalent here to the affectionate disdain that you might feel watching the comically effete men of Old Joy living through a weekend of half-baked Thoreauvian fantasy, getting lost in the safely tamed roped-off part of the wilderness, a stone’s throw from civilization; there’s no danger of the kind of rupture of sympathy Wendy creates between her and us by being stupid enough to steal five dollars’ worth of dog food, when she has five hundred dollars in her money belt.
Meek’s Cutoff, although the official reading may call it a revisionist Western, or a feminist Western, or a subversion of the Western, is in fact a pure and literal Western – the direction of travel embedded in the description of the genre expressed as an existential imperative: go west and get rich; go west or die. A significant proportion of the running time of the film is devoted to the characters trudging painfully and silently from right to left across the boxy 4:3 ratio screen hoping against hope to find the water they need to survive (echoes of Peter Weir’s overlooked The Way Back from last year, although Reichardt’s film locates the plight of its characters much more resonantly in a historical and geographical context: the scarcity of water has always been part of the narrative of the American west, it’s never been a part of the narrative of the fall of Soviet communism). For these characters, this is real in a way it could never quite be for the characters in the earlier films. Reichardt herself would possibly dispute that, particularly with reference to Wendy and Lucy. But to my mind the cloak of genre brings credibility to the stakes that is less contingent on the viewer’s politics or the details of the characterisation. The only hint in Meek’s Cutoff that the stakes might not be life and death for all of the people on screen is the half-smile that flickers across the face of the captured Cayuse Indian (stuntman Rod Rondeaux) whose presence divides the group and challenges Meek’s authority, as one of the emigrants’ covered wagons is dashed to pieces on a rocky incline, redoubling the difficulty of their progress.
Although Meek’s Cutoff is a much more straightforward proposition than the earlier films, there are strong thematic echoes that place it firmly within the body of Reichardt’s work. In the same way that most contemporary Westerns incorporate significant elements of the history, quasi-history and mythology of the West into their narratives, so, as already noted, does Meek’s Cutoff (this goes for the broader sweep of the narrative and for smaller beats such as one character’s discovery of untold quantities of gold just lying there in a dried up river bed, waiting for a claim to be staked: a probably apocryphal story that became the legend of the lost Blue Bucket Mine). But there are also several returning motifs from Reichardt’s own earlier films. Just two examples: the bloviating Meek leading his charges astray in search of water in the arid wastes of Eastern Oregon/Will Oldham’s bullshit-spouting Kurt swearing blind he knows the way to Bagby Hot Springs in Old Joy; Wendy’s headlong trek from Indiana to Alaska in search of financial salvation, which runs aground when she loses her car in Oregon/the similar route taken by the emigrants in Meek’s Cutoff and the loss of their wagon.
The effect of concordances such as these, for those who have seen all three films, is to ironise the narrative of Meek’s Cutoff more strongly than would solely the contrasts and echoes with the established history and mythology of the Western. Reichardt’s concerns remain rooted in social justice (how do we live with one another?) and the geography of the American west (in this seismic, parched, vulnerable place?) – there’s a subtext here chattering away in much the same way as the liberal talk radio hosts in Old Joy about issues such as the environment and social justice.
Reichardt’s previous films have been so finely balanced in many ways that any rhetorical excess at all could feel obtrusively crude in context: the most commonly-cited example being the crucifix worn by the shop assistant who busts Wendy for shoplifting – a moment that would pass barely noticed in most films, but which is often used as a brush to tar Reichardt’s films as excessively didactic exercises in boilerplate liberalism. Meek’s Cutoff is not immune to such accusations. The film skirts close to committing an error of unjustifiable presentism, unconvincingly giving the Michelle Williams character 21st century attitudes, putting her in the position of both audience surrogate and director’s mouthpiece (Williams’ performance is, as usual, flawless). The contemporary echoes of the language Meek and some of the emigrants use to denote the Indian as “other” – Meek’s constant admonitions that the emigrants ‘don’t know what they’re dealing with’, another character’s assertion that ‘they don’t feel the same way about life as we do’ – also strike a false note, and invite superficial readings alluding to the war on terror.
But I should emphasise that what can feel heavy-handed in the context of Meek’s Cutoff would barely register at all as rhetoric in most films (the films of Ken Loach, say, or Christopher Nolan) and shouldn’t affect your appreciation of its considerable formal and narrative pleasures, most of which I’ve left for you to discover. If I think it falls short of greatness, I don’t think it’s by much. I’ll remember Meek’s Cutoff for the way Chris Blauvelt’s camera captures the harsh beauty of the sun on salt flats and the eeriness of nighttime campfire chiaroscuro; for Bruce Greenwood’s self-consciously theatrical turn as Stephen Meek, pushing baroquely comic unintelligibility way past Jeff Bridges’ Rooster Cogburn; for the brilliant perversity of never once letting us into the Indian’s head, though he talks voluminously (in a language we don’t understand); for putting us so vividly and mercilessly in the shoes of people who have no option but to put one foot in front of the other until the road runs out.
“Meek’s Cutoff” is released tomorrow, 15 April, by Soda Pictures