Despite my fondness for Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, I harbor no illusion in convincing the general movie-going public that this minimalist Western is anything short of a challenging viewing, mainly for its lack of dialogue and dramatic action. Indeed, calling it a Western is a stretch in and of itself, since one should not expect to see any of the pistol showdowns, saloon brawls and buxom women with a heart of gold that is associated with the genre. The desolated landscape, boastful cowboy and enigmatic Indian are only setups to a film that has aligned itself as more of an allegory to contemporary issues than as a genre exercise.
Now that I have warned off all the uninterested readers, let’s get acquainted with the plot. Set in 1845, a group of emigrants hired Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to guide them across the mountains in Oregon. Under Meek’s direction, the party trails in the middle of the punishing terrain with no end in sight. Discontent towards Meek grows amongst the three families as resources are dwindling. The headstrong Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) and her husband Solomon (Will Patton) are increasingly untrusting towards Meek. The other two families see no other option but to follow his lead. Faced with dire circumstances, one family relies on their religion for emotional strength while the other indulges in the discovery of the tiny bit of gold in the dirt. Then in one hasty attempt, Meek and company capture a wandering Indian, whom the swashbuckling cowboy claims is a threat. The emigrants are faced with a dilemma— should they continue to trust Meek and kill the Indian or should they take a risk by using the Indian to help them get out of this mess?
By this point, no one should expect Meek’s Cutoff to follow up with the kind of White-men fantasy in the likes of Dances with Wolves. Reichardt conveys a sense of doom to her audience by means of repetition and deliberate pacing, a necessary “evil” (for the impatient ones among us) that is critical in establishing an awareness of time past. The film is really not as difficult as its detractors have complained once you allow yourself get used to its rhythm. As a matter of fact, most modern movies travel in the same speed—24 frames per second. The perceived “slowness” is only relative to the viewer’s level of engagement and the rhythm which one is accustomed to. Meek’s Cutoff slows us down for the purpose of securing a sense of the timing that is closer to that of these 19th century characters. Much of the action is shown in almost-real time, remarkably exemplified by the scene that shows Emily firing her old-style rifle and the meticulously detailed steps involved in reloading the weapon— all presented in one uncut shot. The approach is reminiscent of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “cinema of process,” a term coined by Colin McArthur which describes Melville’s style as honoring “the integrity of actions by allowing them to happen in a way significantly closer to ‘real’ time than was formerly the case in fictive, particularly Hollywood, cinema.” One may find it ironic that Melville’s examination of male identity can be related to Reichardt’s subtle feminist cinema in style, yet the cinema of process can also be traced to Chantal Akerman’s methodic housewife drama Jeanne Dielman. All of these directors have wisely used the passing of time to induce tension and anxiety.Another standout element of the film is Reichardt’s bold choice of the 1.37:1 aspect ratio— a standard before the age of television— in lieu of the common widescreen format.
According to the director, the boxy frame represents the perspective of the women whose vision is limited by their bonnets and confined by their social status. The framing also makes way for a portraiture emphasis, which provides the perfect platform for lead actress Michelle Williams, who has grown to be one of the most fearless American actresses in the past half decade. Williams’s astute take on the role of Emily embodies the delicate combination of compassion, intelligence and desperation.
Screenwriter Jon Raymond states that the dynamic between the characters in Meek’s Cutoff is inspired by the U.S. occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. With that said, George W. Bush surely looks like a basis for Stephen Meek, whom Emily cannot tell if he is evil or just stupid. The Indian, played effortlessly by Rod Rondeaux with a perfect blank slate, does not give the scared and thirsty settler a clue about his intentions because of the language and cultural barrier. Meek warns his party about the danger of the native man, much like the same way the Bush era has made many to believe that Muslims, people of color or even gay people are threats to our society. The White House has changed guards, but many domestic and foreign affairs still loom over the country’s future. It is just as tough for the pioneers to choose between Meek and the Indian; I suppose the film’s frustratingly abrupt ending is supposed to indicate that feeling of uncertainty.
Meek’s Cutoff is playing at the MFAH on 7/16 (7:00pm), 7/17 (5:00pm), 7/21 (7:00pm), 7/23 (7:00pm) and 7/24 (5:00pm).