Jonathan Raymond and Kelly Reichardt, 2010
#8, 2011 Skandies
This is one of those textural movies that I usually don't like, except this is a texture in which I'm very interested. In 1845, and the years surrounding, hundreds of thousands of Americans struck out for the west coast, which at the time meant walking across half a continent, specifically the half of the continent that didn't have any roads. Many of them did so wearing heavy pioneer dresses. Meek's Cutoff is largely concerned with showing, with more realism than other movies of this sort have shown, what that must have looked like. This includes hewing more to the rhythms of real life than those of traditional cinema: there's one bravura scene in which a character fires a warning shot, then retrieves her bag of gunpowder from her satchel, pours a pre-measured quantity of gunpowder into the barrel of her gun, gets a paper cartridge containing a musket ball out of her satchel, tears it open using her teeth, drops the patched ball in, removes the ramrod, uses the ramrod to tamp down the powder and ball, replaces the ramrod, opens the breech, pours some primer out of her powder horn into the pan, closes up the lock, pulls back the hammer… and fires her second warning shot.
This realism sits side by side with some odd cinematic decisions. One was to shoot the film in the squarish "Academy ratio" familiar to viewers my age as (roughly) the shape of 20th-century television. This shape was an artifact of technological limitations; it's not a natural way to see the world. Most people have two eyes, oriented horizontally. Turn your hands into the shape of parentheses and bracket your field of vision. Now move them forward a bit so you can see the shape they've made. It's an oblong horizontal rectangle, nowhere near so square as four by three (or 33 by 24). The realistic world of Meek's Cutoff is unrealistically pillarboxed. Reichardt also demonstrates a penchant for extended dissolves that leave a double-exposed mess onscreen for annoyingly long stretches. I saw some of the "I've seen 10,000 movies and just want to see something different" crowd gasping in delight about shots with two different horizon lines in them, but as far as I'm concerned all that does is shout at the viewer to think less about the frontier and more about the editing room.
This movie is also nowhere near as good narratively as it is texturally, but in thinking it over for this article, I found that it actually works better as a story than I initially realized. (This is where the spoilers begin.) The story goes like this: a small group of travelers have hired grizzled mountain man Stephen Meek to guide them to the Willamette Valley, but he has diverted them from the "main stem" of the Oregon Trail and onto the "cutoff" of the title, and while he won't admit it, now they're lost. Much worse, they're lost in a desert, and the only water they find is too alkaline for even the animals to drink. When they capture a Cayuse scout, Meek wants to kill him immediately, but some of the travelers argue that their best bet is to coerce him into leading them to water. Their attempts to communicate that this is what they want founder upon the language barrier, and even if the Cayuse does understand them, it's an open question whether following him will lead them to a river or into a trap. And the movie ends with the sort of lady-or-tiger unresolved ending that was already played out back when people were still using the Oregon Trail. In previous articles I've talked about how this trick draws attention to the artifice of the text: 1. The story raises questions; 2. We yearn for the answers; 3. The story doesn't provide them; 4. We feel frustrated that the text is withholding the information we want; 5. We wonder how else we might go about obtaining that information; 6. We realize we have nowhere else to turn, because the information doesn't even exist outside the text; 7. We are confronted with a reminder that the story was made up. But! It turns out that Meek's Cutoff is based on a true story — that there actually is Outside Information to be had. There was a real Stephen Meek, who did lead a group of settlers into dire straits, and they did end up following a native guide. And that guide did in fact take them to the Deschutes River. For some reason, knowing this — not specifically knowing that the Cayuse was on the up-and-up and that the settlers lived, but simply knowing that there was a resolution and what that resolution was — redeems Meek's Cutoff for me. Discovering how things turned out made the filmmakers' choice to withhold that information seem less like postmodern wankery and more like a (still slightly obnoxious) way of calling attention to the fact that whether the settlers would live or die was not the story the movie was trying to tell — that it was telling a different story, and that the movie ended when it did because that story had been resolved. So, what is that story?
Meek's Cutoff is the story of a transfer of power. At the beginning of the movie, the settlers are following Stephen Meek. Some of his power over them is economic: they've paid him for his expertise, so ignoring his advice about which paths to take means accepting that they've made a failed investment, and loss aversion is a powerful psychological force. Some of it is that he's a self-promoter and cows them with big talk about his accomplishments. Even the crazy beard lends him some authority as an authentic mountain man who presumably knows the country. But before the movie even begins we've had our disordering incident: he's gotten the party lost, and his charges are beginning to resist his directives. The question is, who will fill that power vacuum? When the men gather to confer, they just end up saying, "What do you want to do?" "I don't know, what do you want to do?" And the real story of Meek's Cutoff, it seems to me, is how de facto leadership of this group passes to Emily Tetherow. This would be interesting enough purely in exploring questions like "Why do people do what other people tell them to?" and "What makes people obey these commands and not those commands?" — questions I have been puzzling over at least as far back as my article on The Rivals. But it's doubly interesting insofar as it puts forth a model of power that is not only orthogonal to sex but also to gender. That is, not only is Emily female, but the filmmakers pull any number of semiotic tricks to code her as femme, starting with casting Michelle Williams and dressing her from head to toe in pink — thereby emphasizing that there's nothing inherently masculine about the things she does to take control of the group, be it figuring out a strategy to forge a bond with the Cayuse (through sewing!) or standing up to Meek both verbally and otherwise. Meek makes a poker analogy during his climactic standoff with Emily, and it seems like it's pretty apropos to what the filmmakers are doing here. No, they don't tell us what the river card turns out to be — whether Emily's power play ends up with a won pot or a bust. That's not the story. The story is about how she gets Meek to fold.
Anyway — I'm still not sure that's all that great a story. But even if it's not, Meek's Cutoff should live on for quite a while as a source of video clips for U.S. history teachers to show their classes.