I first came to the work of Kelly Reichardt via Wendy and Lucy, a film that while not perfect, proved to be a huge step in terms of reconstituting who is afforded the opportunity to occupy the space of a film, particularly in regards to gender. Furthermore, while it is feasible that I had seen Michelle Williams in a film prior, it was certainly the first major work in which I can recall her performance, especially in its bleak sense of dread and disillusion that has become, to a degree, her trademark. Meek's Cutoff had been on my "to watch list" upon its initial release and, unfortunately, kept being pushed aside or overlooked for other viewing experiences, yet when I began planning my month of westerns, aside from the obvious classics, this stood out as a necessary work to, especially since it was by a female director and ostensibly stood to revert the genre, an element I am continually seeking in this thirty movie marathon. Of course, Meek's Cutoff is not a perfect movie, much like Reichardt's previously mentioned film, Meek's Cutoff suffers from spouts of existential wandering and stagnant cinematography that appears to lack an ultimate motive or payoff, yet when the narrative finds its occasional grounding it does so with such an excellent eye and focus that it makes up for many of the emergent issues. The beauty of this film is not in its execution, however, but in its complete disavowal of the gender oppression which would have occurred during that era. The idyllic films within the western genre canon, seem set on dissecting every detail as to why male-based rationality and bravery ruled out over feminine "hysteria" and emotions. Meek's Cutoff demands that a viewer truly consider the likelihood of such blind subservience, particularly in the face of dehydration, starvation and a growing sense of failure. Otherness becomes less obvious when survival becomes key, although Reichardt is no idealist in this context and furthers to critique to say that perhaps such moments of challenge against authoritative gender norms found direction based on the ability to markedly define a lesser body. Regardless, Meek's Cutoff, while not an absolutely standout film, nonetheless, takes a genre and considers its prevalence historically as well as within an contemporary and changing filmmaking world.
Meek's Cutoff follows a small band of pioneers making their way through the desolate Oregon Trail in hopes of starting the life anew. The group includes the stern Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton) and his wife Emily (Michelle Williams) as well as the other couples William (Neal Huff) and Gloria White (Shirley Henderson) and Thomas (Paul Dano) and Mille Gately (Zoe Kazan). Their lack of expertise on travel requires them to involve the help of Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) an arrogant and somewhat ruthless guide who appears to lack the knowledge he suggests in terms of navigation. The group, already drawn thin by lengthy travel, in worsened when discovering that they are running dangerously thin on water, without any assurance that they will find it in the immediate future. Becoming frustrated by the lack of success, the group, particularly Emily begin to challenge Meek in terms of his authority. Upon the discovery of a Native American man, played by Rod Rondeaux, the groups animosity towards Meek grows when he violently attacks him for not telling them where to find water. It is only upon the notion, by Thomas, to barter that the Native man agrees to lead them in exchange for two blankets. During the continually grueling trip tensions as to the nature of the Native vary from Millie's believe that he is signaling to his tribe for attack, while Emily and Thomas defend his presence, Emily even going so far as to help by fixing his moccasin. Trouble strikes, however, when the Tetherow wagon rolls out of control and breaks apart, leading to a loss of goods. Meek frustrated by the Native who begins perusing the goods, pulls a gun on him, which quickly leads to Emily defending the Native. At this point, Meek's power is clearly cut and the travel continues with equal paranoia and a sense of helplessness, yet when the group arrives at a tree with green foliage all hopes are rekindled, because it suggests the presence of water nearby. With little explanation or communication the Native simply continues on his way, only Emily notices his movement away as the narrative closes and the credits emerge.
I could talk about the tropes of masculinity within the context of the western and the manner with which this film directly rejects such constructions, but they are rather obvious, particularly with Emily's appropriation of power through the phallic rifle, while still maintaining the domestic abilities that allow her to barter with the Native by fixing the shoe, whereas, Meek is a failed masculine figure in his lack of basic knowledge and failed attempts to bring everyone on board with a backward-looking notion of social constructs. These things are there in the forefront and decidedly important, but what caught my attention was Reichardt's interesting filmmaking style. The choice to go digital and reject the widescreen tradition of the western is captivating, especially since she still relies on the wide shot composition for many scene, which manage to still be stunning. Furthermore, she shoots in natural lighting a choice that makes the daytime images seem stark, the dusk and dawn images mesmerizing and the nighttime shots nearly incomprehensible. This method of filmmaking, for this genre specifically, is fascinating, it is a choice often reserved for horror films or indie psychological dramas, but has a big payoff here in its consideration of exactly what is so idyllic about the western as a film genre. Within the narrative Reichardt clearly rejects the sentimentality and traditionalism attached to the era, because it was terrible for everyone involved and doubly so for anyone without a voice or power. Secondly, aside from a few moments each day the living conditions within the world were far from comfortable. The near black scenes of night, remove the sort of homely comfort associated with the campfire of the old west and remind viewers that it would probably have been quite impossible to visually communicate in the darkness, while providing pioneers with little to no comfort. The digital camera only makes the dark even more incomprehensible, instead of possessing the sharp "true blacks" of a strictly film era. In the matter of less than two hours, Reichardt's film narratively and structurally reconsiders the relevance of the western in contemporary society, unfortunately, its obtuse ending fails to provide any tangible alternatives.
Key Scene: There is a rather stellar speech about destruction and chaos about halfway through the film that is a highlight from a consistently solid film
This is on Watch Instantly and I suggest checking it out, although it is necessary to come at the film with an appropriate frame of mind, because it is a highly perplexing and philosophical engagement.