Meek's Cutoff Review
The previous two features from the American independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, based on short stories from her writer collaborator Jon Raymond, have been focussed very much on characters marginalised by the responsibilities and the complications of dealing with the modern world. In Old Joy (2006), two friends who have gone their own ways in the intervening years set out together on a camping trip, hoping to rekindle a simpler life and take time out to consider that there might be an alternative way to the direction life has taken them. In Wendy and Lucy (2008), a young woman sets out for Alaska with her dog looking for work, looking for a more honest way of living that is increasing hard to find, but she also discovers that the realities of the world are not so easy to escape.
If there is an alternative way of living, the answer to the question of whether it is any better or not is inconclusive, but it’s clear that the search for it at least is not taking the easy option. Regardless of the challenges it presents, the allure of an alternative lifestyle still remains and Meek’s Cutoff, perhaps even more than those earlier works, is more concerned with exploring that allure that makes men and women suffer and endure extreme hardships in the search of something ultimately indefinable and possibly inachievable. In their first original film script together, Reichardt and Raymond look back to origins of that impulse to explore – or at least their origins in how they pertain to the American lifestyle – by following a group of pioneers setting out on the Oregon Trail in 1845. The return to a simpler life is thus taken to its ultimate extreme in American terms, but what exactly is achieved remains similarly inconclusive – perhaps frustratingly so for some viewers.
In terms of lifestyle of the three families hauling their cattle and wagons across the vast desert plains of Oregon, it could hardly be more austere, and every bit of the harshness of the location and the lives of the pioneers is laid-out in the detail of their daily routines. There are clear divisions between the sexes, the women prepare food and knitting clothes and blankets, but have little or no say in the direction that they are taking, which path to take or which obstacles to avoid. These daily problems are considered by the men., gathered into their own group and debating how to handle the various situations that come up, they make the ultimate decisions and determine the direction to be followed, taking into consideration the influence of the sometimes boastful and not entirely to be trusted accounts of their grizzled guide, Stephen Meek. Two major problems occupy their minds throughout the journey – one, what to do about the problem of finding water, and two, what to do with an Indian they have captured prowling near the camp.
While the women dutifully fulfil their roles, one of them on her feet all day even though she is pregnant, another, Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) proves to be more assertive than the others when it comes to dealing with these two very real concerns faced by them all, and is even more assertive when it comes to dealing with Meek. This has led some viewers of the film to see the film in terms of putting forward a feminist agenda, but while there is certainly an aspect of this in the film and it’s a valid reading, the issues examined are much more fundamental, getting right back to the acceptance of social conditioning and how it influences behaviour, forming attitudes that seem right and unassailable, but which in reality drive one to contravene or deny basic goodness in human nature. It’s hard to argue with the courage and determination that drives these men and their families out into the wilderness and it’s hard to dispute the eventual future rewards we know will are gained from this endeavour in its formation of the American pioneering spirit – but for the individual figures in Meeks Cutoff, that never seems like a certainty, and there are no such comforting realisations that they are pursuing the right course of action.
Much of this however has to be surmised and interpreted by the viewer. Reichardt and writer Raymond make little explicit in the dialogue or the limited situations that occur, striving for a stripped-back naturalism that is at odds with conventional Hollywood depictions of the Old West. Plainly harsh and lacking in basic comforts – precious belongings are unsentimentally ditched along the trail as the going gets tough – the motivations of the little group of travellers seems unfathomable to the modern viewer, pushing themselves to the limits and beyond for something that appears nothing more than a false promise, in a hospitable land with an untrustworthy guide. They have no way of knowing what lies ahead, or what further troubles lie in store for them, yet, they determinedly persevere. What the viewer takes from this is largely left open for discussion, but it does present an intriguing dilemma, particularly at the conclusion.
Despite its minimalism and austerity, the richness of the film however is evident in the skilled filmmaking that emphasises every aspect of the characters’ lives and situation in realistic detail. As filthy and stinking as the travellers clearly are, as basic are their belongings and provisions, as bleak the function of their lives reduced and restricted to basic survival, as harsh and unrelenting the desert landscapes they cross, there is an undeniable beauty in the pitting of humanity against the forces of nature and chance – even in the very image of humanity in such an unforgiving environment, photographed naturally in Academy ratio in a classical painterly manner – that seems to come through without any effort being made on the part of the filmmakers. Set against this background, every incident, every question, every expression of dialogue – as small and minor as they might be – becomes something far more important, meaningful and critical in establishing an expression of freedom and self-determination, which in the end, may be motivating factor of that inexplicable drive.