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New York Film Festival 2010: Meek’s Cutoff

Formally, Kelly Reichardt’s fourth feature is some kind of masterpiece.

Meek's Cutoff
Photo: Oscilloscope

On a formal level, Meek’s Cutoff, the fourth feature from Kelly Reichardt, is some kind of masterpiece. Rather like an extremely damped-down There Will Be Blood, Reichardt’s film—based on historical events—depicts one group’s journey through the Oregon Trail in 1845 as a trek through a hauntingly empty and alien landscape, with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt exquisitely taking in the natural beauties of the settings while framing the increasingly desperate wanderers in wide shots to emphasize, in part, their ultimate smallness within the wild west. (Her choice to shoot the film in the classic 1.33:1 Academy ratio—possibly a nod to Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God, another film about a delusional explorer—adds to a sense of nature closing in on the characters.) Jeff Grace’s musical score heightens the There Will Be Blood comparison, its spooky cello sonorities sounding like Jonny Greenwood’s screeching atonal strings in the Paul Thomas Anderson film but with the volume level turned way down. But the low-key, naturalistic acting style is all Reichardt, familiar from her two previous films, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, and as focused on between-the-lines attempts at connection and understanding as those two films were. The results often feel as vividly realistic as moments in Terrence Malick’s The New World. Meek’s Cutoff is undeniably a fascinatingly idiosyncratic, aesthetically provocative, and occasionally enthralling vision, and as such cannot be easily dismissed.

If I find myself less than completely overwhelmed by this film, however…well, to a certain extent, chalk it up to the film’s ending, which only served to crystallize issues that I had throughout the film that, in the end, I find myself unable to easily slough off despite the film’s visual and formal beauties.

With her emphasis on distancing wide shots, a spectral atmosphere, and a marked de-emphasis on dialogue, Reichardt looks to be aiming to capture something mysterious and intangible in Meek’s Cutoff beyond the particulars of its plot, such as it is. A clue to that “something” can perhaps be found in Meek himself. As written by Reichardt’s usual collaborator Jon Raymond, and as played by Bruce Greenwood, Stephen Meek is himself a man of mystery. In the film’s opening moments, we discover that he has led a group of three families astray as they try to cross the Cascade Mountains and find a better life for themselves out west, and much is made of the skepticism voiced by one of the wives, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams): Is he merely arrogant or just insane? (He’s seen boasting to one child about his fantastic-sounding victories in battle at one point.) When Meek captures a Cayuse Native American (Rod Rondeaux) and members of the three families begin to wonder whether they should follow the Native American lead instead of Meek’s, Reichardt deliberately avoids translating his dialogue, so we’re as much in the dark about his motives as the whole gang is—thus extending that sense of mystery about human motives to the outsider as she does to the ostensible insider.

And yet, that initially refreshing sense of opacity becomes a liability when Reichardt tries to introduce some genuine character conflict between these two authority figures and the one woman who dares to stick herself in the middle: Because we are kept so much outside of these figures psychologically, the resolution to this tug of war as it is depicted in its final scene fails to muster up any sense of dramatic weight whatsoever. Instead, Meek’s decision to cede his authority to the Native American seems arbitrary in context—a real “Where the hell did that come from?” moment.

I wish I could dismiss that as merely a momentary failure to come up with a satisfying ending. But earlier in the film, Emily’s sudden interest in the Native American—bringing him food, pulling a shotgun on Meek when he threatens to kill him, and treating him like one of them even when the others’ express fear or anger over it—also plays more like a shift dictated by the script rather than arising organically from her character, she having shown no memorable humanist impulses beforehand except her worries over the safety and welfare of her and the other two families. Both of these psychological gaps point to a fundamental failure of imaginative sympathy at the heart of Meek’s Cutoff that it never quite transcends.

Many of the film’s champions have made claims for the film as a topical allegory, and sure, there’s something to that. Stephen Meek, as depicted in this film, could perhaps be viewed as representative of the Bush administration, insisting on staying on a dangerous path and refusing to admit that mistakes had been made, while the dark-skinned Native American could represent the Obama administration, with the families all showing varying degrees of hope or skepticism as to whether this new leader will indeed bring them the change they desire. This doesn’t strike me as a particularly rich or deep allegory on the face of it, and thankfully Reichardt’s visual mastery is transfixing enough that its thinness never becomes a big deal. But as I ponder the film’s ending and my indifferent reaction to it, I can’t help but wonder if, at a certain point in conceiving this project, Reichardt allowed the allegorical to overwhelm the human—if these characters were conceived at the start as tent poles rather than characters, and if the film’s skillfully rendered aura of psychological impenetrability is actually an attempt, however unconscious, to cover for a failure on the filmmakers’ part to fully imagine these people as living, breathing human beings.

Humanism seems to be the driving force behind Reichardt’s own vision, judging not only from this film, but from Wendy and Lucy, which frequently made a point of showing not only the capacity of human kindness toward the film’s central vagabond (also played by Michelle Williams), but also the inevitable limits of that kindness. Remember, for instance, the shopping mall guard who extends some cash toward Wendy and seems like a savior…until we find out he gave her only $6? It’s a paltry sum given her circumstances, but Reichardt’s neutral tone suggested a humane understanding, however gut-wrenching. If that moment, and Wendy and Lucy as a whole, is any indication of Reichardt’s worldview, then one can certainly see Emily Tetherow in Meek’s Cutoff as a fairly obvious mouthpiece for that worldview, especially when she takes an interest in treating the Native American with respect rather than with the kind of hostility Meek shows him. Alas, a mouthpiece is all she remains as the movie progresses on its ambling way. Once you grasp early on what Emily Tetherow and other characters are supposed to represent in the film’s grand allegorical scheme, dramatically speaking, there isn’t really much else of interest left to discover about these characters along the way—and, until that puzzling conclusion, Reichardt doesn’t offer many surprises either.

Even all of these reservations, however, might not matter so much if there was much of a sense of illumination at the end of Meek’s Cutoff. But, well, at the risk of being accused of unduly bringing personal politics to bear on a film, there’s something rather timid and too easy about Reichardt’s brand of humanism. Call it the Letters from Iwo Jima problem, if you will. In that second installment of Clint Eastwood’s much-praised diptych (with Flags of Our Fathers preceding it), Eastwood tried to look at the battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective, with the idea of showing empathy for the “enemy.” Again, that’s undoubtedly a laudable aim, one with which I share a fundamental sympathy: If everyone showed that same sense of humanity toward one’s enemies, who knows how many wars we might have avoided in history. But Eastwood’s understanding of Japanese culture never went much beyond painting the Japanese as slightly more fanatical versions of American soldiers, with many of them seeming more like iterations of 1940s Hollywood war-movie clichés than specifically Japanese folk. Eastwood’s idea of humanizing the enemy, thus, was to fudge cultural specifics in order to advance the rather simplistic, though not entirely invalid, notion that Japanese soldiers were basically no different from American ones, and for that reason alone just as deserving of sympathy as the Americans.

Reichardt does her own cultural fudging in Meek’s Cutoff when it comes to the nameless Native American: Though Meek speaks angrily of the brutality of the Cayuse in battle, this particular tribal member never really shows the rest of the group his brutal side, and Emily’s own attempts to bridge the cultural divide are thus never significantly challenged. If Reichardt is, to be fair, intelligent enough to avoid suggesting that Native Americans are really no different from white Americans, neither does she exude much curiosity about that particular culture either—and by the end, with Meek finally ceding his authority to the Native American, the Cayuse gets the figurative final say with an image that does little more than indulge in the same kind of exoticization of Native Americans that most classic Hollywood westerns did.

What I missed from this film is a sense of a filmmaker willing to risk shaking up her audience in trying to locate the humanity in a culture other than our own; if we are all indeed the same deep down, then why bother actually trying to understand other cultures? The film’s characters may spend their time in the film wandering through an unfamiliar landscape, but the film itself never evinces a similar willingness to probe and discover. For all its aesthetic boldness and tantalizing gestures toward historical revisionism, Meek’s Cutoff ultimately stays resolutely, and disappointingly, safe and comfortable.

The New York Film Festival runs from September 24—October 10.

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