Meek’s Cutoff – A Review

26 04 2011

 

Meek's Cutoff, Kelly Reichardt, Bruce Greenwood

The revisionist Western has been with us for so long now that it seems almost impossible to imagine any contemporary film-maker wanting to produce a piece of work on the old ‘good-guys-in-white-hats, bad-guys-in-black-hats’ template. From Clint Eastwood’s 1992 excoriation of his gun-toting past in Unforgiven to Jim Jarmusch’s brutal and chaotic Dead Man, from TV’s expletive-laden Deadwood to Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the Western has become a much more critical, questioning genre than ever before, with the old heroic certainties of the West long dead and buried somewhere out on the prairie.

The latest addition to the genre is Meek’s Cutoff, directed by Kelly Reichardt, hitherto best known for her low-budget portrayals of contemporary American life (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy). In it, the director tells the story of a group of pioneers on or, more to the point, off the Oregon Trail in 1845.

As the film opens, the pioneers – three married couples and a boy – are well and truly lost. Having broken away from the main trail to follow the ‘cutoff’ suggested to them by their charismatic guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood), they find themselves in an arid, almost featureless landscape of prairie grass and salt flats, with no obvious indication of which way to turn their wagons next.

Meek, one-part confidence trickster, two-parts storyteller, insists that he knows the land like the back of his hand, and that it’s only a matter of time before he leads them to their destination and receives his pay-off. As their water supply starts to run low though, the group increasingly starts to doubt the fast-talking, bullishly-confident Meek and his methods. In an early scene, we see the other men in the group taking a vote on whether to hang their guide from the nearest tree, and their feelings towards him hardly improve as his confident assertions continue to amount to nothing.

As the days pass, the search for water starts to take precedence over the search for the trail, so much so that when the pioneers stumble across a lone native American (Rod Rondeaux), they capture him and, against Meek’s advice, let him live so that he can lead them to a place to drink. This ‘savage’ speaks no English though, and Meek, for all of his dark tales of scalping and murder, seems to know precious little about ‘Indian’ ways. Nevertheless, necessity dictates that they follow their captive wherever he may lead them, and trust in him as their last hope against the rigours of the frontier.

Bruce Greenwood as Stephen Meek

The pioneers’ lives are presented to us in a stark, quietly realistic way. The men read from their Bibles, guide their horses and oxen and fix broken axles on the wagons; the women’s days consist of domestic chore after domestic chore, from baking bread to collecting firewood to stitching clothes. When the men (Paul Dano, Will Patton and Neal Huff) step away for the camp for an impromptu conference on navigation or whether or not to kill the Indian, the camera stays with the wagons and the women (Michelle Williams, Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson). The world of the women is very much the world of the film, the discussions that will decide their fate barely audible on the prairie wind. (“What are they saying?” Henderson’s character keeps repeating at one point, straining to hear what we ourselves can barely hear.)

Reichardt brings a fitting physicality to the story of the feuding pioneers, giving us a sense of the sheer difficulty and tedium of moving wagons and livestock across this inhospitable terrain. The opening scene shows the group fording a river, the women wading across in their skirts. Later, we see the wagons being elaborately lowered down a hillside, the fate of the group hanging on the hauling of ropes, on its own sweat and muscle-power. At times, we see the pioneers doing little more than trudging stoically across dried-up salt lakes or green-brown grassland, utterly defeated by the scale of the land that they have wandered into. Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: Wrath of God springs to mind as a comparison, as do the lost children in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout.

This is a West before the West was won, when the United States still clung solidly to one seaboard and uncertainly to the other, with vast, empty spaces inbetween. This is America before the Civil War and before the railways. Early on in the film we hear Meek and the other men discussing the future of the West around the campfire: will it go British or American? Time will only tell. The historical moment is evoked too in the speech, manners and even the faces of Reichardt’s characters, as surely as if they’d been assembled somehow from old photos of the time, or shortly thereafter.

The performances are great, particularly those of Shirley Henderson and of Bruce Greenwood who, as Meek, keeps his cards very close to his chest. Is he a conman who’s got himself in too deep? A natural leader? A fantasist? A criminal? We, along with the people he is leading, never quite know his secret, and spend most of the film trying to guess at it.

Meek’s Cutoff is shot in a ‘square’ 1.33:1 aspect ratio, an eccentric choice at the best of times, and especially so when dealing with the vast landscapes on display here. This lack of lush, widescreen beauty is certainly deliberate, focusing attention on the lost souls involved in the story and on the bleak future that seems to await them. At the same time, though, the film is strangely reminiscent of John Ford’s view of the West, or at least more so than are many other contemporary Westerns. The lyrical love of landscape may not be there, but a respect and a reverence for the toughness of the lives of frontiersmen and women is, as are echoes of the incomprehension and hatred felt by whites towards ‘Indians’, and vice versa, in The Searchers.

Meek’s Cutoff is out now in selected UK cinemas.

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