MEEK’S CUTOFF: Trust Building and Westward Expansion

Meek’s Cutoff trusts its audience, and that’s a wonderful thing. The film is director Kelly Reichardt’s fourth full-length, and her second with Michelle Williams as its lead (2008’s Wendy and Lucy is the first). Williams plays Emily Tetherow, a member of a band of settlers heading west across Oregon in 1845. When we first encounter Tetherow and her companions, they’re already lost—or “just finding [their] way,” according to hired guide Stephen Meek. Fatigued and short on supplies, the settlers begin to question Meek’s judgment. Emily, in particular, wonders if Meek is simply incompetent, or if he’s been paid by another party to lead her group astray.

Reichardt and screenwriter Jonathan Raymond are fascinated by the minutiae of westward travel, both sensory and interpersonal. Reichardt’s camera frequently pans across alien landscapes, tracing the Oregon High Desert’s cracked, barren ground and craggy hills. But unlike The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, another recent revisionist western that relied on landscape shots to convey vague profundities, Meek’s Cutoff is about being there—trudging through an unfamiliar place, with no clear end in sight.

Reichardt and Raymond make viewers feel the strain put on the settlers and their lack of certainty. To this end, the film begins well into the settlers’ journey, with a minimum information about who they are or what they want—forcing viewers to orient themselves, in other words. It’s the sort of move that keeps some people away from indies generally, that a person could argue betrays indifference or hostility toward the audience, but those hypothetical people are all varieties of wrong. Reichardt empowers her viewers, making them work and trusting us to do the work well.

The close identification Reichardt encourages viewers to have with Tetherow and her companions—not the, like, sharing of 19th century values*, but at least the sharing of visceral feelings—also extends to the mystery of Stephen Meek. As Meek, Bruce Greenwood—who normally plays somebody’s dad or commanding officer—sinks his teeth into a heartier-than-usual character role. His Meek is a prideful, fast-talking eccentric, and (one assumes, after a while) a fool. But as to whether or not he’s also a saboteur, our guess is as good as Emily Teherow’s.

Subtlety and restraint have never been hallmarks of the western. This is, after all, the genre that gave us the term “black hats.” And while Meek’s Cutoff isn’t the first film in the larger genre that requires viewers to draw conclusions about characters’ motivations or plot resolutions and the like, it makes these demands more brazenly than The Assassination of Jesse James, or Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven before that. Reichardt allows viewers to get lost, and to trust our own compasses.

* Seriously: once the settlers encounters a Native American, we’re able to see at once, convincingly, how alien such a person would have appeared to a pack of unaccustomed white Christian folk, but their behavior is still quietly sort of appalling

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