Sunday, January 22, 2012

Meek's Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

Follow the leader

Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff isn't your usual genre Western; it may have covered wagons, women in bonnets and gingham skirts, men with flintlock rifles and even the odd half-naked indian, but no--this isn't a Western so much as it is Ms. Reichardt's inimitably strange foray into the genre.

Strangest of all is that the story is based on actual events. Stephen Meek did guide a thousand settlers, among them a group led by one Solomon Tetherow, away from the main trail into the Oregon desert, where they promptly got lost (there was talk of possible Indian attacks); Tetherow's followers did meet a Native American, and they did offer him a blanket in exchange for water.

For Reichardt's purposes the thousand settlers were whittled drastically down to nine, the two hundred covered wagons to a mere three. The pacing is more than a little leisurely; the incidents--the capture of the Native American, a dangerous wagon descent, arguments and confrontations, a case of severe dehydration, and finally a showdown involving rifles and pistols--don't seem as important as the opportunity afforded to Reichardt to pose her nine dusty, despairing travelers against the vast Oregon wasteland. This isn't Larry McMurtry territory, where Southern melodrama plays out against the ironic, implacable forces of history; the film's focus isn't so much on the historical as it is on the existential.

Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton) is the party's ostensible leader, but they follow Stephen Meek (Bob Greenwood, resplendent in his mane of mountain-man hair); Meek in turn chatters away, telling of one near-death adventure after another, promising that water is “just over those hills.” We meet his followers just about the time they're ready to lose faith in him; early in the picture one settler takes the time to scratch out the word 'Lost' on a rock before turning to unenthusiastically continue their seemingly endless slog; later Tetherow's wife Emily (Michelle Williams) asks her husband “is he ignorant, or just plain evil?”

Reichardt leaves the question hanging over the settlers while they continue their journey (she leaves a lot of questions hanging throughout). You watch this unlikely band trailing behind their unlikelier leader and you wonder: are they going to survive? More pressing yet: are they going to keep following this chattering nut of a guide, who seems to make up landmarks as he goes along? When an alternative's presented, it's hardly much better: a Native American (veteran stuntman Ron Rondeaux) is brought to camp, and offered a blanket if he would lead them to water. Meek scoffs at his trustworthiness and suggests he's leading them to his fellow tribesmen to be massacred. The man does have a point--if Meek seems unable to lead them out of the desert, he at least speaks to them in words that they understand; the Native American chatters away almost as much as Meek does but in an untranslated, unsubtitled language (the native's solemn deadpan demeanor does make him seem more authoritative). He's as inscrutable as Meek is unhelpful.

The allegorical meanings pile up as the settlers' options run out; tensions rise, fingers stray toward rifle and pistol triggers. Michelle Williams who plays Emily Tetherow is easily the most recognizable face in the cast (Greenwood's is obscured by all the hair), but her character doesn't really stand out, at least not at first; everyone, even the Hollywood celebrity, is lost in the thousands of miles of Oregonian sand and stone, the thousands of miles of empty silence. It takes Reichardt some minutes to even come to a medium shot--for the film's first ten or so minutes we are treated to endless long shots of the actors struggling across the sparse landscape. For a true closeup we have to wait until the near end, when the film plays out to its enigmatic conclusion--then the camera is focused on Williams' alert but unenlightened face, trying to puzzle out the meaning of what she's looking at. Meek at one point declares ominously that this “was all written out long before we got here;” one suspects that he's talking not so much of the script as of a scenario--of a briefly sketched situation where the nine characters (plus one Native American) are released to roam randomly, and resolve their various destinies.

The image is highly theatrical--one thinks of a chamber drama--but the film is the exact opposite: instead of a confined space that intensifies the claustrophobia and builds psychological tension to the bursting point, we have a stage on which tension and drama dissipates, blows away (don't think Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit so much as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot). Instead of men and women confronting the possibility that fellow humans represent the worst possible threat, they confront the possibility that there is no threat, no hope, no relief, no resolution, no end to their bleak circumstance. If there's another, worst definition of hell...I'm hard pressed to think what that might be.

First published in Businessworld, 1.5.12

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